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Artificial Grass – A Ticking Time Bomb?

by Gareth James

Following the recent decision by the Planning Committee to reject the application for the ‘change of use’ of the Pavilion – which would have tied the renovation to the ‘Putt in the Park’ project – we have taken a moment to look again at the long-term implications of using plastic grass on the Common and the industry in general.

Using artificial lawns is a contentious issue, and the available information from ‘google’ searches reveals a glut of contradictory viewpoints from those both for and against its use. I have tried to cut through the rhetoric and distill the major issues to offer a zoom lens on a subject that divides the nation.

The claims from manufacturers and retailers paint a glowing picture of a maintenance-free, water-saving, life-enhancing world that would inspire any lawn enthusiast to ditch the turf and install an artificial lawn without a moment’s hesitation.

Although lacking in substance, the style of advertising on many websites is redolent of tobacco industry tactics. The various grass grades are assigned extravagant and glamorous names like Wonder Yarn, Lounge Lux, Royal Grass and Mayfair, all perfectly pitched and scripted to con you into believing you’re buying into an elite and sophisticated, luxury lifestyle rather than just a fake and phoney piece of plastic.

The counterclaims from environmentalists paint a far darker picture of an unchecked spread of suffocating plastic across the UK that is spiralling out of control. They point to a disturbing lack of product regulation, chronic unsustainably and pending ecological catastrophe.

The main benefits of artificial lawns fall neatly into five major categories, endlessly repeated in all promo literature from all suppliers. Although these companies are tripping over each other to catch a rapidly expanding market, they at least stand together and united in these claims.

Although many of these claims can be true in essence, most of them don’t stand up to scrutiny, and I have added notes to explain why this is so:

Maintenance-free – the lawn does not need cutting as it doesn’t grow. Many suppliers also note these cuts harmful emissions from your diesel or petrol mower.

Note: true, but this is an audacious and disingenuous comment as it fails to acknowledge the enormous carbon footprint incurred from the initial manufacturing and shipping process, which will likely outweigh any carbon costs from cutting a real lawn.

Water conservation – it doesn’t need watering because it isn’t alive.

Note: true, but the grass does need washing from time to time, and plastic grass is prone to overheating during the summer and may need watering to cool it down.

No need for Fertiliser – because the product is not living, you don’t need to keep feeding the lawn with harmful fertilisers or moss killing treatments.

Note: true for fertilisers, but if the plastic grass is sand-filled, it will still grow weeds and moss will grow where it is laid in shady areas.

Good for sports – this can certainly be true as plastic grass needs no time to recover and does not become muddy – it can indeed offer a viable alternative for heavy-duty games like football, rugby and hockey.

Note: sporting critics cite a seven-fold increase in open skin lesions or ‘turf burns’ from friction injury compared to natural grass. There are problems with pitches overheating in hot weather and aggravation to asthma sufferers from fumes given off by the rubber-crumb infill.

Looks good all year – I guess this one is self-explanatory.

Some manufacturers claim their product is recyclable, but for reasons outlined below, I am reticent to include this as a viable selling point as investigation shows this is extremely difficult to do and probably untrue.

So, what are the drawbacks?

Well, there might be more than you think. The major criticisms focus on the environmental impact and ecological consequences of these products:

Lack of sustainability – many suppliers, will offer 10-year guarantees for the product and installation, but none will step over this time limit. And for a good reason. Most plastic grass products start to look shabby after just a few years of wear, and many need replacing within 10-15 years. The plastic blades lose their structure and refuse to stand straight. The colour can fade, and many blades become worn, loose and detached from the underlying sheet.

Support for fossil fuels – all plastic lawns are extruded from petrochemical products, and most comprise three separate plastics – polyethylene, polypropylene and polyamide (nylon). Constituents vary slightly depending on manufacturer, but they are all variations on a theme. The ‘infill’ which is brushed into the grass after laying to make the blades stand up, can be sand but for heavy use is often a rubber-crumb composite akin to car-tyre rubber, which can leach chemicals into the environment.

Recycling – these plastics are not biodegradable and can take centuries to break down. Although in theory they could be recycled, these three plastics are all stitched together and near impossible to separate. If you can’t separate them, you can’t recycle them. There is apparently only one recycling centre in Europe able to cope with this, and it is currently out of action. Most spent plastic grass products end up in a landfill. (see photo below).

Current estimates from environmental reporter Harry Wallop (Daily Mail, 17th July 2020), suggest there may be up to 20,000 acres of plastic grass currently in the UK that will need either to be recycled or will go into landfill.

(It is worth noting that ‘Putt in the Park’ is a young company and has only been established since 2013. They may yet have to face the real difficulty of trying to recycle their existing fake lawns)

Dead zones for Wildlife – whatever the fate of the bowling greens, be in no doubt there is a whole ecosystem of invertebrate life going on just under the surface of the soil: earthworms, beetles, centipedes, millipedes, insect larvae and a myriad of other soil-dwelling organisms. This area is a vast carbon sink.

These soil faunae are not only essential for maintaining the all-important soil structure but are a truly precious food source for our birdlife, especially fledglings. They are an integral part of the food chain.

Above ground, the loss of land to plastic grass means no hope at all for birds, bees, butterflies and other insect pollinators.

The construction process itself removes and discards this entire top layer of soil, destroying all life and the carbon-store held within. The newly exposed surface is then covered with a 50mm layer of hardcore plus another layer of either sand of crushed granite. This is then mechanically compacted to create a solid base. The area can be considered a ‘dead zone’, devoid of all life and completely unable to store carbon in the future.

Micro-plastics – despite claims to the contrary, it is inevitable that through wear and tear, cleaning and brushing, many blades of grass come free from their footings and contaminate the surrounding area.

The mechanical breaking of these plastic blades means micro-plastics are being released into the soil and into the microorganisms that live there. The world is only just waking up to understanding the consequences of this type of pollution. Still, many studies already show environmental plastic contamination is considered an emerging threat to biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

We already know that micro-plastics between 0.5-5mm cause damage to the intestines of birds and far smaller pieces of polyethylene can cause a reduction in the biomass of earthworms.

Given that plastic grasses are petrochemical products, mostly made in China, shipped around the world, have laborious installation protocols and last only 10-15 years, the carbon footprint is absolutely enormous.

The Bowling Greens

The surface area of the two bowling greens is about 3,200sq.m. This is a considerable-sized tract of common land planned to be turned into a putting park.

On their website, the artificial grass company ‘Wonderlawn’ talk us through their typical construction process required for a comparatively tiny 45sq.m lawn. They would first need to remove 2-3 tonnes of earth, replace this with the same amount of a hardcore base plus granite chippings, which need be levelled and heavily compacted before laying the plastic grass.

If we were to extrapolate these ratios and proportions and apply them to the Bowling Greens and allow for only 75% of the surface area to be covered, this would mean using the rough equivalent of 160 tonnes of hardcore.

This would be just to create a level surface – forming hills and hummocks would require additional hardcore. And bear in mind, this is before a single blade of plastic grass has entered the site.

A final word:

The ‘Putt in the Park’ project has recently attracted much greater scrutiny from the public at large and the ‘38 Degrees’ petition, protesting the project, has currently over 3,000 signatures.

Wandsworth, Tooting and Clapham Commons are the lungs of south-west London, and it could be construed as an act of enormous self-harm to lease land to a company that will effectively create dead zones for all wildlife.

The sheer scale of the carbon footprint incurred from the plastic grass, hardcore underlay and the permanent loss of a large carbon sink should be cause for the greatest concern.

In these extraordinary times, we need real leadership from our local authorities and management committees. We need smart, savvy thinking to protect our valuable green spaces and we need sustainable, eco-friendly solutions for repurposing the bowling greens.

We are in the middle of a climate crisis and drowning in plastic waste. If our management teams fail to show the clear, forward-facing, decision making needed on this issue, they risk losing credibility and sleepwalking into an environmental catastrophe.

Time to wake up! 

Quotes on plastic grass:

Mathew Frith, director of conservation at the London Wildlife Trust:

“You are using fossil fuels to make it, so there is a carbon impact there, you have to remove a significant amount of soil to lay it, so you are reducing the direct and indirect porosity of the soil, you are removing habitat which a wide range of species are dependent on, and at the end of its life, this is a non-biodegradable product which ultimately goes back into the landfill. So yes, we are concerned at its proliferation.”

Horticulturalist and designer, Jack Wallington:

“Like it or not pieces of plastic lawn break down and contaminate our soils for centuries regardless of being recycled. With the best will in the world, individual blades of fake grass tear off and blow into planting areas or bare soil nearby. Although plastic takes decades or centuries to deteriorate, it does still deteriorate releasing microplastics into soils which find their way into soil microorganisms. We’re only just starting to understand this is happening and the damage it is causing to the natural world.”

Paul de Sylva, senior nature campaigner for Friends of the Earth:

“You will find bees burrowing into lawns which are a mix of grass seeds, other insects will be in there too, and worms – which are incredibly important in terms of the ability of the soil to absorb nutrients and keep soil structured, so that when you have heavy rain or drought, you have a soil system which can cope. By using artificial grass, you lose all this. You are creating a ‘Don’t come here sign,’ for wildlife.”

David Hedges-Gower from Pitchcare:

“Why replace nature’s lungs with a petrol-chemical product that damages rather than helps the environment, a product that does indeed require maintenance and will need replacing every ten years or so? And remember, there’s only one recycling centre that, in theory, can deal with this stuff – and it’s in Denmark and is not currently operable!”

Artificial lawn company ‘I-grass’:

“The production of artificial grass can be bad for the environment and causes pollution and waste as it is not currently biodegradable.”

(All references available on request)

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