Fake grass and fake claims: an expanding environmental disaster

When we think of greening our environment it’s unlikely that it occurs to us that a malign manifestation of greening, in the form of artificial plastic grass, is fast encroaching upon our surroundings.

 

 

Hackney Downs bears witness to both sides of the phenomenon; on a walk around the park we encounter a spectacular burst of tree planting enhanced by mounds of organic wood mulch, but passing the Mossbourne Academy we see its antithesis, a large sterile expanse of fake grass conjured to create a neat and impressive frontage. While many like this neat appearance and manufacturing advances have improved the deception; fake grass never seems to quite lose its artificiality, but this, given the real threat it poses to nature, is of marginal significance. Fake grass, of course does not grow, but what is worrying is the huge growth of this sector. Market projections, for example, predict ‘growth propelled by… its environmental benefits to reach USD 4.20 billion by 2027.’ https://tinyurl.com/9dys8jn3

 

This should concern us for several reasons: Firstly, artificial turf is basically plastic which is in itself is not risk free and very unlikely to be recycled. At a time of mounting concern about the dangerous environmental impacts of plastic; the production and consumption of fake, essentially plastic grass is expanding. But not only is the product fake, but so too are the claims that it is beneficial for the environment.

 

Increasing quantities of artificial turf are being rolled across gardens, rooftops, canal barges, playgrounds, sports fields, wherever, weighing in at nearly one and a half kilos per square metre that is a lot of plastic. Fake grass is mainly made from three petrochemical based derivatives: polypropylene, polyethylene, and nylon. These synthetic polymers come from petroleum hydrocarbons. They are often toxic and damage health. These are the by-products of an industry that is propelling us hurriedly towards irreversible climate change.

 

Polypropylene, the first of the three is generally considered a “safe" plastic which does not contain BPA, (https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/221205) but when it gets hot, and fake grass can get very hot; it can leach antimony, a toxic metalloid likely to penetrate the soil below the fake grass. Fake grass absorbs and retains the heat. Temperatures of nearly two hundred degrees Fahrenheit have been recorded below it (Synthetic Surface Heat Studies” Brigham Young University, 2002) Children and pets can find it intolerable to walk on. Contrary to the claims in the ads that it requires no water like real grass and is low maintenance; it often needs gallons of water to cool and clean it. It needs brushing and sometimes hoovering!

   

It also contains phthalates, synthetic chemicals that are used to make plastic flexible and harder to break. Despite being prolific in many products, phthalates can be harmful to pregnant women and their children. 

https://www.ecowatch.com/phthalates-childrens-health-2650812053.html

 

Polyethylene presents fewer environmental hazards than other polymers, but its production requires both hydrocarbons and chlorine. Chlorine makes its impact on the environment very significant (Frosch, R. & N. Gallopoulos. 1989. Strategies for manufacturing. Scientific American). Its use in producing chemical products has had devastating effects on the environment. In its different artificial forms, chlorine plays a major role in the most serious environmental problems of today: depletion of the ozone layer, acid rain and global warming. Besides its inherent properties, the chemical and production process is highly energy intensive and creates a significant carbon foot print which is added to by its distribution, transportation and installation.

The constituent materials of fake grass don’t naturally biodegrade but they do inevitably break down over time to add to the toxic mix of micro-plastic particulates that will reside in our air, soil and water. https://chemtrust.org/news/airborne-microplastics-pollution/

 

While the components of fake grass can technically be recycled if separated they are tightly bound together making recycling very unlikely. When made from a single material they can theoretically be re-cycled  and this feature is a frequent marketing gambit, however, after perhaps ten years of use, the artificial turf is likely to be soiled and contaminated and the necessity to thoroughly pre-clean it makes recycling most unlikely. Specialist recycling plants are virtually non-existent, so the most likely outcome is it will end up at the local municipal tip.

Manufacturers claim that their product is enduring with a life of perhaps ten to twenty years. What cannot be denied, however, is that the product, unlike real grass is not self-propagating; it will become tatty and compacted and its disposal will add to its carbon footprint.

 

Covering the ground with a thick layer of plastic is not a good idea. Insects are blocked from burrowing into the ground and worms and micro-organisms are starved of essential nutrients and prevented from reaching the surface. Not only is healthy soil bacteria destroyed but when grass and plants grow they act as a carbon store. When this is dug out to lay fake grass its potential for locking in carbon in the ground is lost and the carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Fake lawns are contributing to the rapid decline in insects, destroy soil fertility.  (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-inse...) and reduce nature’s ability to mitigate against climate change. 

 

One consequence of climate change is higher global average temperatures and greater precipitation, extreme rainfall. Not only do artificial lawns create heat islands which absorb heat and then dispel it at night, not a desirable quality as temperatures rise, but by putting a plastic covering on the ground they prevent rainfall from being properly absorbed and can add to the risk of flooding. It makes no sense, when the UK is set to see about a ten per cent rise in annual average rainfall by 2100 for the roll out of fake lawns to go on unabated. Flood resilience programmes using (SUDS) sustainable drainage systems are doing the inverse of AstroTurf, and involve ripping up the man made stuff that prevents natural drainage and actively greening the environment to manage flood risk.         

Focussing on these technical environmental arguments it’s easy to ignore an important characteristic absent from fake grass products of Wilkes, B&Q or Grass Direct; the unique sensual dimension of nature, the sweet scent of fresh cut grass, the pleasant feel of dewy grass underfoot. Those dazzling stripped green surfaces in the ads that carry names such as Windermere or Orlando are dangerous fakes and best avoided.

 

Had AstroTurf been around in 1867 when Karl Marx examined capitalism’s depletion of soil fertility using it as an example of the ‘rift’ between man and nature; I suspect he might have given AstroTurf a mention or used it as an example of what he earlier referred to as ‘man’s alienation from nature.’ (Empson, E. Land and Labour, Marxism, Ecology and human history, 2014)It seems today to epitomise destructive consumerism, our disconnect with nature and the profit motive’s cynical disregard of environmental damage. If it wasn’t absolutely the wrong thing to do I’d recommend chucking it in a skip, definitely not buying it and certainly not using it in schools where a recommendation would be a curriculum which teaches environmental awareness and explores how to best act when confronted with capitalism’s climate and ecological crisis.    

  

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