Is Artificial Grass Bad for the Environment?

Artificial grass has surged in popularity over the last couple of years. It can now be seen in all sorts of places, including balconies, pathways, staircases, play areas and of course in the garden.

Synthetic grass has multiple applications and due to advancements in technology, it can mimic real grass quite well in the way it looks and feels to walk on.

Artificial grass manufacturers will tell you all the positives that this material can have on the environment, whereas resolute environmentalists will tell you that it is nothing but bad for the environment.

Where does the truth lie?

Whether or not to get artificial grass has been a recent debate in my home. There wasn’t a clear-cut answer initially, so I decided to do some research, resulting in this blog post.

From my research it seems clear to me that artificial grass is bad for the environment. My aim with this blog is to present the facts for you to make an informed decision on whether artificial grass is bad for the environment or not. Let’s take a look.

What is artificial grass made of?

Artificial grass, astroturf, fake grass and synthetic grass are all a type of plastic-based matting used as a flooring material in the garden or at home.

Originating in the 1960s, artificial grass was invented as a low-maintenance replacement for real grass and garden lawn. Since then, it’s uses have multiplied and it can now be found in all sorts of places from roof top bars to professional football pitches.

Artificial grass is primarily made from plastic.

All synthetic plastic that goes on to make the likes of plastic bags and polystyrene comes from the extraction of raw materials, such as crude oil, which is distilled and separated in an oil refinery into various petrochemicals. One of the petrochemical sources that is separated off is used to produce plastics.

Common plastic materials used for artificial grass include:

  • Polyethylene – the same material used to make plastic bags
  • Polypropylene – used for bottles to hold household liquids, outdoor furniture, toys
  • Polyurethane – foam used in furniture, underlay, paint rollers
  • Nylon – a thermoplastic that can be made into fibres, films and shapes

The synthetic plastic grass blades are often woven into an underlying mat of plastic to secure them in place. The blades are then coated with a protective chemical to help them to last for as long as possible.

Some manufacturers have created more eco-friendly versions where the fake grass is made from recycled materials, but this is currently very rare.

artificial grass laid in a back garden next to patio

Why is artificial grass bad for the environment?

There are a number of reasons why artificial grass is bad for the environment, particularly so when compared to real grass.

On the surface of it, replacing a natural, living, carbon dioxide absorbing plant with a big piece of plastic doesn’t sound good for the environment.

Here’s a quick list of the reasons why fake grass is not beneficial for the environment. I’ll go into more details on each underneath:

  • Fake grass is made from plastic
  • Almost all artificial grass is not recyclable
  • It isn’t alive – it doesn’t absorb CO2 and doesn’t release O2
  • It doesn’t provide habitats for wildlife
  • Damage the soil and below ground ecosystems
  • It’s likely to release microplastics into the environment

> The vast majority of artificial grass is made from brand new plastic made from petrochemicals.

Producing and manufacturing plastic involves the extraction of raw materials from deep within the ground, which then undergo a highly energy intensive production process. 

As you know, using fossil fuels such as crude oil, natural gas and coal is detrimental to the local physical environment, the wildlife in it and to our atmosphere.

Petroleum-based products are extremely carbon heavy, create waste and pollution during the manufacturing process, then if not recycled, will carrying on having a negative impact on the environment as it degrades in landfill site.

There is a lot of plastic that goes into making artificial grass too. A metre squared section of fake grass can weigh around 2kg.

Multiple this up to a garden area covered in fake grass, for example 20m2, and you’re talking about 40kg of plastic.

> Almost all artificial grass is not recyclable.

Synthetic grass is a mixture of multiple types of plastics. Different plastic types have different methods of being recycled. For example, polystyrene can’t be recycled at the same facility as other plastics.

As the plastics used in fake grass have been bonded together, they cannot be separated and made pure.

This makes artificial grass non-recyclable.

> Artificial grass is not part of the ecosystem, doesn’t absorb CO2 and doesn’t release O2

Astroturf replaces a living organism that absorbs carbon dioxide and emits oxygen. This process is fundamental to life as we know it.

Not only this but real grass also protects the soil underneath. Soil is a vital, and significantly underappreciated, component of life.

Soil is a natural store of carbon from the atmosphere, which then gets absorbed by plants via their roots over a large amount of time in a controlled manner. If it wasn’t for soil, there wouldn’t be plants and we wouldn’t have an atmosphere to live in.

There’s a two-fold impact of fake grass on soil:

  1. Removing real grass and the top layer of soil releases stored carbon dioxide into the environment
  2. Covering the area with plastic means it completely stops absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
fake artificial grass with brown leaf
Artificial grass provides a sterile, lifeless environment

> Fake grass doesn’t provide habitats and damages the soil

Real grass provides homes, stop off points, feeding grounds and areas of interaction for hundreds of different creatures.

Real grass supports vast ecosystems that includes butterflies, birds, bees, snails, spiders, worms, plus many other unseen types of wildlife, invertebrates and microbes.

Artificial grass covering the ground has zero environmental credentials when it comes to supporting wildlife. Nothing can survive in the plastic matting. The only thing it might do on the odd occasion is trap organic matter than something else may be able to feed off.

Compared to the real thing where a vast ecosystem of organisms, microbes, invertebrates and plant life can survive helping both the food chain and biodiversity.

And let’s not forgetting about the life that lives underground in the soil.

Soil is host to a whole world of microrganisms and biodiversity. Some people may not immediately care for microorganisms and all these microscopic creatures that we cannot see. This is either a lack of education or pure ignorance. We completely rely on soil and the biodiversity it contains for all of our vegetables, fruits, grains, cereals, dairy and meat.

When artificial grass is being laid, the top layer of soil is often dug up and replaced with silica sand to provide a sturdy base.

Silica sand is a naturally occurring material but it’s also one of the world’s most traded resources, thanks to its uses in the industrial world – silica sand is the main ingredient used to make glass and concrete. This means its extracted at phenomenal rates and shipped across the world.

> Artificial grass will result in microplastics

If all goes well, a lawn of fake grass will last for a decade, maybe two decades at best.

I wouldn’t class this as single use but the plastic used to make the artificial grass will slowly degrade over time, both physically and chemically.

Synthetic plastic isn’t biodegradable and certainly isn’t compostable. This means when it does physically degrade, it just breaks down into smaller pieces – what we now know as microplastics.

Microplastics, which are less than 5mm in size, are not good for the environment at all. As they flake off and find their way into the nearby soil and environment, they get unknowingly consumed by animals and transported in water systems.

Because of their sheer durability, microplastics will get anywhere and everywhere. It’s even been found in the most remote places on earth, such as the polar seabed of Antarctica.

Does artificial grass have any eco-friendly benefits?

Artificial grass manufacturers often state that their product will benefit the environment.

They say fake grass doesn’t need watering or cutting, and also doesn’t need treating with pesticides and chemical fertiliser. This is all true.

Does it mean that artificial grass can be eco-friendly?

Claim 1: Artificial grass saves water

Yes, you don’t need to water fake grass. This would save an awful lot of water if every household watered their lawn.

I know there are some, probably many, households who like to keep their grass to the same standards as the Wembley turf, which requires a lot of watering, but how many average households’ water their grass? I don’t think I’ve ever have!

On the flip side it requires a lot of water to make plastic in the first place.

It takes roughly 200 litres of water to make 1kg of plastic. There’s the fact it takes at least twice the amount of water to make a single use plastic bottle as the amount of water it actually holds!

A square metre of fake grass can weigh anywhere from 1.5kg to 3kg, which equates to between roughly 300-600L of water per metre squared.

A relatively small patch of artificial grass in the garden may cover 20m2. It would require around 10,000 litres of water to make that plastic.

Artificial grass also doesn’t soak up water in the same way that real grass does. Although it does have a water permeable membrane, a fake lawn leads to more water run-off that real grass.

Claim 2: Artificial grass reduces carbon emissions

Manufactures state that fake grass doesn’t need to be trimmed, cut or generally maintained which saves on petrol lawn mower use.

This is correct.

However, we know how energy intensive it is to extract fossil fuels and create plastic. This then needs to be manufactured and transported.

I probably cut my small patch of grass with an electric lawn mower once a month during the summer. I very much doubt this will use more energy than it costs to extract the petroleum and create plastic…even over 20 years.

This may depend on the size of your lawn and, if you have a petrol-powered mower, how much of this you go through.

Claim 3: Artificial grass is non-toxic

It’s very true that you don’t need to use the likes of weedkillers, pesticides and chemical fertilisers on synthetic grass.

This is good as many of these products are very toxic to both plants and animals and are indiscriminatory in the type of wildlife they target.

If people do want to give their lawn a lift, organic versions of fertilisers are plentiful and there are always natural remedies to keep pests at bay.

We also know that plastic itself isn’t exactly healthy for the environment and will cause it’s own problems.

Artificial grass may in very specific circumstances be the lesser of two evils, for example if a large lawn is heavily watered every night and treated with excessive amounts of chemical fertiliser, but to say it’s eco-friendly is simply not true.

Is artificial grass bad for wildlife?

In short, yes, artificial grass is bad for wildlife.

Real grass is a natural, living organism, which plays a large roll in local ecosystems both above and below ground. Replacing a natural environment with a sheet of plastic is going to have a detrimental affect on wildlife and biodiversity, which is already in serious decline in the UK and across the world.

The only possible way that wildlife may be indirectly helped is if off-setting measures are put in place, such as planting nearby trees, adding pots and planters into the garden. People may even leave a section of their garden to rewild and grow free.

That being said, a highly manicured, pristine lawn is often devoid of a lot of life too thanks to weedkillers and fertilisers.

But it always remains that taking real grass away to replace it with synthetic grass is causing a reduction in a natural environment which will have a negative impact on wildlife.

murphy sitting in long grass rewilded garden corner
Murphy enjoying my long grass and ‘wild’ corner

Is artificial grass sustainable?

In general, artificial grass isn’t sustainable.

Sustainability requires a reduction in resource use and waste, and an increase in recyclability and reuse.

Artificial grass is largely made from brand-new, fossil fuel-based plastics and is not recycled when it’s no longer needed. This require the use of more natural resources and energy, which ultimately cannot be reused, meaning current artificial grass is not sustainable.   

It’s not to say fake grass cannot be sustainable in the future. There are some producers who are making artificial grass partly from recycled material, which is great.

The problem of recycling artificial grass still remains.

Some synthetic lawns are being advertised as recyclable. In theory this may be true but in reality it’s not practical and therefore won’t be done.

In the UK, there is little to no recycling infrastructure that will be able to handle a large roll of fake grass. Instead, the consumer will have to make arrangements and pay for the fake grass to be transported to another country, such as the Netherlands, who do have the means to recycle it.

The possibility of the average consumer going to these lengths to recycle their fake turf is highly unlikely. This then leaves to avenues for the artificial grass: landfill or incinerated for energy.

For artificial grass to be sustainable it will have to be made from recycled materials. If plastic is still being used, then it will have to be the same type of plastic so that it can be handled efficiently and the whole sheet can be recycled as one.

Wrap up on artificial grass and the environment

Although there may be some benefits to artificial grass when compared to specific management practices of lawn, I don’t think it can ever be classed as good for the environment.

Artificial grass is made from kilograms worth of fossil-fuel based plastic that is extremely difficult to recycle. These facts alone outweigh and potential and perceived benefits.

The environmental benefits pushed by artificial grass producers don’t hold up for the average patch of garden grass in a UK household.

Real grass supports wildlife and biodiversity, absorbs rainfall, protects the soil and this crucial ecosystem and actively contributes in a positive way to the environment – artificial grass does none of this.

Artificial grass can last a relatively long time to us but compare this to how long grass and other plants last for in nature and it’s insignificant. Also, when the time is up for fake grass it can’t be reseeded – it has to be rolled up and dealt with in a non-sustainable manner where it causes further negative impacts on the environment.

A real grass lawn doesn’t have to be perfectly managed and manicured with chemicals and sprinkler systems.

Grass lawns can be managed in a more natural way with organic choices and natural systems. Embrace nature even more rewild an area of your garden – let a patch of grass grow for the benefit of the wildlife!

Nature, wildflowers and insect species are all going through huge declines in the UK due to human practices. Artificial grass won’t improve this, it’ll just make it worse in the long term. In my view, this makes it bad for the environment.

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Ben & Murphy Peaks Mam Tor

I’m the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about living a more sustainable, environmentally friendly life. Away from the laptop, I love spending time in nature and with my young family (plus Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.

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