The Truth, Naturally

Eugene Higgins explains why we need to turn our backs on plastic grass and embrace what comes naturally. “When I started out in landscaping in 2000, I wanted to trade under a name that would define my desire to take a more modern approach to gardening. I needed a simple phrase that would sum up the ethos of what I was about, and so Colour Green was born, a simple, short trading name and for me, a moral guideline too. I applied simple rules: no weedkiller where possible, less chemical based products, a no-no to slug pellets, and most importantly no plastic in the gardens I designed 

Synthetic grass was not something I ever envisaged as being part of the typical garden. For me, gardens are oases, where people and nature thrive. The idea of introducing an artificial version of grass is a garden crime of biblical proportions. The original concept of artificial grass was first devised in the early 1950s and was brought to the market by the Chemstrand Company. Interestingly, it changed name to Monsanto, and let’s face it, there are a few folks out there who see that company 

as having its own biblical connotations. The Ford Foundation also got involved. They had admirable aspirations in the 1960s to create year-round urban recreational zones that would allow children to play on more gentle surfaces than Tarmac and concrete. The crowning glory of this process was in 1966 when when the AstroTurf Dome in Houston USA was opened. 

The future of this concept was bright and looked brilliantly futuristic, but we were naive. However, as we know, both time and reflection bring wisdom, and now plastic in all its forms is finally being recognised as a potential cause for ecological collapse. As a society, we have finally woken up and are now realising how the the fragile habitat we share with nature is being poisoned, strangled or choked into destruction. Our reckless disregard for the place we live in and for future generations is catching up with us. 

Artificial grass is just part of this Doomsday story, but it’s
a significant part. Synthetic grass may look and feel like the
real thing. Some people simply can’t get past the fact that
it’s plastic based. It is hailed by those who advocate it for
for its water-saving benefits, but artificial turf has its own environmental drawbacks. It is a petroleum-based product that creates pollution and waste in the manufacturing process. And, while it is often made partially with recycled materials, it is not biodegradable. The vast majority of artificial grass will end up in landfill after its expected lifespan of 15-20 years. I use the word ‘expected’ because most materials used in the humid climate
of Ireland rarely last as long as they should. I noticed a huge amount of actual grass poking up through an artificial lawn recently. That may have been down to poor installation but it speaks to its performance in Ireland. Secretly, I was delighted. 

Critics point to synthetic turf as an environmental heater.
It absorbs heat and feels hot to the touch in direct sun. Pet owners give synthetic grass mixed reviews. It does not absorb animal waste, but is permeable so liquids pass through to the ground underneath. Some suppliers have reported a surge in business in recent years, with one company seeing a year-on- year increase of 50% since 2010. If this trend continues then there is a serious threat to the country’s wildlife that relies on gardens as a valuable food source.
Artificial grass provides no benefit to wildlife. Experts say its popularity will only increase the decline in bird, insect and mammal populations across the country. Reflect on that when you make your next lawn choice. Grass lawns also matter in terms of the greenhouse effect. Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. If you remove lawns, then you remove a significant carbon sink and oxygen producer. It’s negative for the environment no matter what way you cut 

it, or install it for that matter. Tim Rumball, editor of Amateur Gardening magazine has been quoted as saying, “This trend could even affect the atmosphere, as plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and a lack of natural grassland could affect the carbon levels in the atmosphere.” 

Remember, when grass grows longer it attracts insects. If you have an artificial lawn these insects will be depleted and the whole of the food network will be affected, especially birds that rely on insects for their diet. Natural lawns also provide
an interface between the atmosphere and the rhizosphere. Covering over the ground slowly chokes the soil beneath. Although it is typically designed to allow water to percolate through, because there is no root action the materials below often become compacted, leaving water to be displaced. You will find bees burrowing into natural lawns, which are a mix of grass seeds. Other insects will be in there too, and also worms which are incredibly important in terms of the ability of the
soil to absorb nutrients and keep it structured, so that when you have heavy rain or drought you have a soil system which can cope. In an increasingly hard landscaped world, every bit of green is vital. To hand over our lawns is an abomination. An affront to nature from its own custodians. 

Did you ever lift up a piece of grass and read the ingredients? No, of course not. Me neither. I do suggest you read the ingredients of artificial grass before you propose to use it. The padding is often made of recycled tyres, which keeps them out of landfill, but the petroleum-based artificial grass materials are complex chemical creations, the products of intensive and energy hungry manufacturing processes 

Finally, I’d like you to consider Amy Griffin, a college soccer coach in Seattle, who sparked a national conversation in the USA with her suspicions about the number of current and former soccer goalkeepers who had developed blood and other rare cancers. She points to all the goalkeepers that have played on artificial grass infilled with recycled rubber tyre crumbs, and to the fact that the recycled rubber tyres in question, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, can contain heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carbon black and other known cancer-causing chemicals. 

My message to Ireland’s landscapers, gardeners and specifiers is to really consider the options. The people who will feel the impact of your decisions the most are the next generation. 

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