People benefit from greenspaces because of the ecosystem services they create, especially in urban areas. This includes things like reduced flood risk, climate change mitigation, and improvements to air quality, biodiversity, wellbeing, and quality of life.
Lawns are a prevalent feature of public parks and private, domestic gardens. These traditional lawns are areas covered in soil and planted with grasses for aesthetic and recreational purposes. This land use can occupy a significant proportion of our urban greenspaces. However, there is growing public concern about the use of artificial lawns (fake grass made from plastic), especially when installed as a replacement for traditional grass lawns or as a replacement for other vegetated surfaces.
Artificial lawns vary in grass size, density, and colour, and people install it because they are widely promoted as a low maintenance alternative with a consistent grass-like appearance. Nevertheless, artificial lawns are manufactured from synthetic polymers (plastic). The installation process also usually involves removing the top layer of soil which is replaced with a sheet of weed liner on top of a bed of sand.
In recent years, the demand for this product has grown considerably in both public and private outdoor spaces, but several recent online petitions garnering thousands of signatures sought to ban artificial lawns entirely. This was due to concerns about the associated environmental impacts.
I conducted my own research, published in Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, where I discovered some interesting differences between living and artificial lawns (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ufug.2021.127232). This research comprised of a series of controlled rainfall experiments. The aim was to investigate if there were any differences in hydrological response between living and artificial lawns of differing design specifications
The research demonstrated that artificial lawns (with differing designs) displayed significantly greater volumes of runoff than living lawns. Additionally, artificial lawns with a greater pile height had significantly more runoff compared to artificial lawns with a shorter pile height. This highlighted that not only were artificial lawns more likely to experience increased runoff compared to living lawns, but that differences in artificial lawn design specifications also influenced the hydrological response. Furthermore, living lawns were significantly better at retaining the water and delaying drainage compared to the artificial lawns. Also, plastic debris from the artificial lawns was collected from the runoff. This observation indicated that artificial lawns act as a source in the global plastic cycle.
Scientists, campaigners, and various media outlets have highlighted some negative consequences associated with artificial lawns. For instance, the increased likelihood of urban flooding exacerbated by risks associated with changing climates, heat stress caused by the plastic lawn’s thermal qualities, plastic blades of grass contributing to the global plastic cycle during construction, maintenance and at the products end of life, and the effects on urban ecology and biodiversity through the removal of natural habitats.
In April 2022, the Guardian published an article on the Eden Project installing artificial lawns to stop children getting muddy. There was a public outcry and an apology from the Eden Project. In May 2022, artificial lawns were banned from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The RHS wanted to encourage members of the public to use real vegetation in their gardens. Shortly after this, the Advertising Standards Authority declared that adverts claiming that plastic lawns were eco-friendly were not allowed because some marketing efforts by artificial lawn companies had been unsubstantiated and misleading. Chris Packham, the naturalist and tv presenter, got involved in the debates when he accused McDonald’s of a “massive error” after the fast-food chain cut down trees in London, replacing them with an artificial lawn instead. Furthermore, the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, known for its efforts to stop biodiversity loss and develop nature-based solutions, also could not avoid public backlash for installing artificial lawns.
In December 2022, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, announced new proposals to enable local authorities to block developments where artificial lawns were due to be laid. The plans to ban artificial lawns were part of Mr Gove’s consultation on an updated version of the National Planning Policy Framework. Since then, in March 2023, various news outlets reported that artificial lawns are being laid for every home on some new-build housing developments. In June 2023, the BBC reported that Wales’s Climate Change Minister was considering a Wales-wide ban on artificial grass but later that week it was announced that they would not ban it. As an alternative, the Climate Change Minister wanted to focus on educating the public about the benefits of biodiverse greenspaces instead.
Only a month later, Spanish researchers reported that artificial lawns are a major source of plastic pollution to natural aquatic environments (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2023.122094). This study analysed river and sea surface water samples collected from the Guadalquivir River in Seville and off the coast of Barcelona. The research suggests that large proportions of artificial grass microplastics are transported via our rivers and into the sea. The plastics then break down further and it is suggested to be a global problem.
The Society of Garden Designers (SGD) launched their ‘Say No to Plastic Grass & Plants’ campaign in a bid to raise awareness on the environmental damage caused by plastic grass and plants. The campaign is supported by the Royal Horticultural Society and Landscape Institute UK. The SGD actively discourages its members from specifying these products in their designs and has banned advertising and sponsorship of them from its publications and events since 2019.
Is it time to rethink what the “perfect lawn” should look like? Yes! Instead of having a well-maintained lawn or installing an artificial lawn (with the aesthetic of a well-maintained lawn), reimagining the “perfect lawn” to be a habitat, that can grow wilder than is traditionally associated with lawns, will be the better option for wildlife and the natural environment.
It is important to acknowledge the current body of research and growing public opinion on the environmental impacts of artificial lawns. Therefore, people should consider avoiding designing greenspaces with artificial lawns, and instead, focus on designing these greenspaces in more environmentally friendly ways, with the aim of increasing biodiversity and ecosystem services.