It’s time to talk turf… we’ve had a bit of rain, the soil is warming up, and loads of people are starting to think about sowing seed, rolling out grass, and spending the rest of their spare time mowing and maintaining their great green sea!

Over the last couple of years there has been a significant shift in the lawn and order of grass, both here in Australia and overseas. Homeowners are seriously shifting from turf to fake grass! That’s right… fake grass (or synthetic turf as the manufacturers prefer you to call it)! Let me just point out right now that the fake turf we all grew up mocking and loathing has come an incredibly long way and actually looks pretty darn good these days.

So, what’s the story? Is fake grass better than real grass for the environment? Some very well known and well respected gardeners say “Yes”, while others disagree. So, to further explore these turf wars, a not so well known and occasionally respected gardener has done a bit of research, watched the grass grow, and presents you with the good, bad, and everything in between regarding real vs. fake.

Revealing the Real Stuff

The concept of the lawn originated in England, in the late 1600’s to early 1700’s, and was regarded as a “status symbol”, due to the extremely labour intensive processes involved in the maintenance of a nicely clipped lawn (remember, this was well before the invention of mowing machines in the 1830’s). Huge areas of lawn were developed for recreation, play, and as a “green sea”, effectively creating a cooling affect in many landscapes. As European settlers made their homes in Australia, they bought many of their English style gardening practices with them, including the good old lawn.

This created some significant problems. Firstly, maintenance of a lush green lawn in Australia required massive amounts of water. You see, in temperate England, where lawn originated, the annual rainfall was more than sufficient to support and maintain healthy lawns. In an aridity prone continent like Australia, just keeping lawns alive required larger, often environmentally invasive water supply systems. The other issue facing our first turf masters was the usage of exotic grasses in a harsh and unforgiving climate. Some of these species failed, but some (such as kikuyu) flourished, to the point they are now considered weedy.

Faking It

Unlike the real stuff, fake grass was developed in the 1950’s, with the patent for Astro Turf, the original fake grass awarded to Monsanto in 1967. Astro Turf was originally designed as a sports field surface, but, as any older hockey player will remember, this surface was hard, scratchy, and did more harm than good (especially to players ankles, knees and ACL’s). But, like all things, there has been a revolution, and the current synthetic turfs are incredibly realistic, look fantastic and feel great underfoot.

So, fake grass must be green? Sure, synthetic turf installations use less water than a traditional lawn, they don’t require pest and disease management (therefore reducing harmful chemical inputs) and they don’t need mowing (saving time, money and emissions). But don’t get too eco-excited just yet! Synthetic turfs are a petro-chemical product, meaning they are pumping out the black balloons at time of manufacture. Modern synthetic turf, especially when used as a playing surface, is in-filled with rubber granules made from recycled tyres (seems sustainable….but is it?) as this helps reduce joint injury during play. American research has shown us that these tyres have the ability to release a whole host of “volatile organic hydrocarbons” (fairly bad stuff), as well as other toxic chemicals. While obviously being fairly bad for human health, consider the long term impact of these products leaching into soil and groundwater! Horrifying!

Turf Wars – Comparing the Two

Okay, so what we really want to know is…which one is better for the environment? Loads of eco-aware homeowners are being told that fake is the new green, while traditionalists feel that real is the eco deal. Both products have their advantages and disadvantages (environmental, social, financial and otherwise), and, to be honest, I am loathe to recommend one over the other in terms of sustainability and environmental impact. Instead I will leave it to you, dear reader, to make up your own mind.

Fake Turf – Advantages

  • It’s always green (unless of course you buy a cheap and nasty version that fades….don’t laugh, I’ve seen it!).
  • Less chemical and physical inputs over time (remember low maintenance doesn’t mean NO maintenance). This is an extremely appealing environmental outcome.
  • Low water requirements (again, low doesn’t mean no). Many synthetic turf manufacturers recommend applying water to the surface, to prevent soil underneath from cracking, and to cool the surface.
  • Suitable for “difficult” installations (e.g.: low to no soil, pool surrounds, rooftop areas, low to no natural light etc.)
  • Good quality synthetic turf should last a minimum of ten years, with some lasting up to 35!
  • Good quality synthetic turf may actually save you money over its lifespan… while installation is expensive, you are saving on pesticides, herbicides, mowers, brush cutters and their petrol (not to mention getting your weekends back!).
  • Can be incredibly aesthetically pleasing, and allows greater design and installation flexibility than real turf.
  • Excellent “dust prevention”… a covered surface is always better than a dust bowl

Fake Turf – Disadvantages

    • Depending on the installation process, the rubber bedding they use as infill can contain heavy metals and VOC’s, which is nightmare stuff for soil and groundwater health.
    • It is recommended that all soil be heavily compacted before installing synthetic turf. Goodbye soil structure, soil microbes and soil life… and good luck to any tree roots in the vicinity!
    • The porosity and permeability of some synthetic turf is fairly woeful… again not allowing a lot of moisture through to the soil.
    • Being a petrochemical product, the manufacturing process is less than ideal for the environment.
    • Fake turf does nothing to capture atmospheric carbon….in fact there was an American study that suggested it may be contributing to it, due to the high amount of heat fake turf gives off.
    • It needs to be cleaned… with disinfectant! Why won’t anyone consider the soil?
    • It does nothing to enhance backyard bio-diversity
    • It has been associated with high incidence of sports injury, especially strain type injury and a phenomenon known as “turf toe” to it’s lack of give

  • It’s darned expensive!
  • What happens to it when it has passed it useful life… it ain’t designed to break down quickly, meaning a long stay in landfill!

Real Turf – Advantages

  • Real grass sequesters carbon… hooray!! Australian lawns and playing fields can absorb a massive amount of CO2 every year… what a top carbon sink!
  • Real turf produces oxygen… 58 square metres of lawn provide enough oxygen for one person for an entire day.
  • Lawns modify temperature around buildings, and in our urban spaces. On a block of eight average houses, front lawns have the cooling effect of 70 tonnes of air conditioning.
  • Excellent “dust prevention”… a covered surface is always better than a dust bowl
  • Real turf can trap an estimated 12 million tons of dust and dirt released annually into the atmosphere.
  • Houses surrounded by turf are less likely to be affected by bushfire, as the turf retards the spread of fire.
  • Real turf reduces run-off, helping to filter the water before it recharges the groundwater
  • It’s attractive… well, it can be.. and kids and pets are more likely to roll about on a patch of real lawn.
  • Healthy grass provides a feeding ground for birds, who find it a rich source of insects, worms, and other food.
  • Unlike fake grass, real grass does not have a negative impact on soil health.
  • Lawns can actually survive on very little water

Real Turf – Disdvantages

  • Most lawns are composed of a single species of plant, creating a monoculture which significantly reduces biodiversity, especially if the lawn covers a large area.
  • Monocultures lead to an increase in pest and disease issues, requiring the use of pesticides and herbicides, many of these having significant negative environmental impacts.
  • Many people overwater their lawns, believing they need a lot of water. This leads to shallow rooting grass, which dries out rapidly in summer, prompting people to dump more water on their lawn. Overwatering also leads to significant fungal problems and pest issues, encouraging the use of horticultural chemicals.
  • Water restrictions prevent us from watering turf at all….this is not a good scenario for an introduced grass species.
  • Most of our lawns are composed of turf species not local to our area (or even our country), further decreasing local biodiversity, and adding to weed problems in our remnant bushland (I’m looking at you Kikuyu)
  • The greening of turf in our urban spaces generally requires considerable use of fertilisers which, as we know, have contributed to the degradation of much of our countries soil and water catchments (think algal blooms in our precious waterways). Studies have shown that up to 60% of synthetic, nitrogen based fertiliser applied to lawns ends up in our waterways!
  • An American study found that over 3 million tons of synthetic lawn fertiliser was dumped on lawns in the US of A. While it won’t be this high in Australia, its still heaps!
  • Mowing is a pain, for you and the environment. One hour of mowing is the pollution equivalent of driving a car for 150km. Mower noise is offensive, and mowing is time consuming. On the flip side, it’s good exercise!
  • Pesticide and fertiliser use is significant, and can have some seriously negative environmental impacts further down the line.

There are many more environmentally sound, lower maintenance options available than the traditional lawn or the synthetic stuff. Please consider some of these ‘greener’ alternatives when planning your open space. Not only will you be helping the environment, you will have more time to kick back in your banana lounge and read a good book. Click here to find out all about lawn alternatives… the sustainable solution!

1. Lawton, Graham (04 June 2005). “Pitch battle over artificial grass”. New Scientist (2502): p.35.
2. Forbes. Retrieved on 2008-01-11.
3. New England Journal of Medicine article
4. David R. Brown, Sc.D. (2007). “Artificial Turf” Environment & Human Health, Inc.
5. C. Frank Williams, Gilbert E. Pulley (2002). “Synthetic Surface Heat Studies” Brigham Young University. Retrieved on 2008-02-19.