In this age of climate change and drought, lawns are under the microscope. These thirsty patches of grass that have their roots as status symbols for the European aristocracy are now adorning properties in countries as disparate as Australia, China, and the United States. In fact, today there are 163,800 square kilometers of lawn across the United States, including parks and golf courses. That’s the size of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts combined.
Signalers of suburban, middle-class comfort, lawns are increasingly becoming a target of eco-friendly movements sweeping many areas. Governments are also getting involved, with places like Las Vegas, California, and Utah offering tax incentives and cash rebates to those willing to replace their turf with eco-friendly alternatives like clover, moss, or just plain dirt.
The beef with turf
So why the anti-lawn movement? A recent New York Times opinion video (“How to Fall Out of Love with Your Lawn”) went viral when it showcased the wastage inherent in lawn maintenance.
According to the video and Business Insider, lawns are the most abundant irrigated crop in America, occupying 2% of land in the continental US and even outstripping the amount of irrigated corn that’s grown. This places them in heavy competition with farms for the water we need to sustain a stable food supply. ‘
According to the EPA, 29% of all water used by the average American home is devoted to outdoor use. “In fact, it is estimated that the average American home uses 50,500 gallons of water outdoors each year, mostly for irrigation.” That’s enough water combined to fill 5 million Olympic-sized swimming pools – every year. In the midst of the worst drought the American West has seen in a millennium, this use of water is particularly egregious.
Beyond water wastage, anti-lawn advocates cite toxic chemicals as further reason to stop the lawn addiction. Each year, US homeowners maintain lawns with approximately 3 million tons of nitrogen- and phosphorous-based fertilizers, as well as roughly 70 million pounds of pesticides that contain chemicals such as glyphosate that have been found harmful to people, pets, and wildlife.
The effects of these chemicals are not limited to direct contact with the lawn. According to an Environmental Protection Agency study, 40% to 60% of nitrogen ends up in surface and groundwater. Runoff then carries the toxins to streams, rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans, poisoning aquatic creatures and harming humans who spend time in water or eat contaminated seafood. Plus, studies have found year-round low levels of lawn maintenance pesticides in the atmosphere (read: fog, rain, wind).
Heard enough? Oh, but there’s more. Those tidy squares of grass also contribute to carbon emissions and air pollution in general. On the surface it seems that, like forests, grass can work as “carbon sinks,” absorbing carbon from the atmosphere to moderate the effects of climate change. In reality, however, the chemicals and tools we use to keep our lawns pretty kick up a stink that far outweighs any benefits.
To start, for every ton of nitrogen manufactured for fertilizers, four or five tons of carbon are emitted into the atmosphere. Additionally, as much as 5% of total U.S. air pollution comes from our gas-powered landscaping equipment—yes, your uncle’s riding mower is one—which consumes 800 million gallons of gasoline annually.
But while the situation may seem bleak, there are myriad options for reducing the detrimental impact of the ornamental lawn, short of eliminating them entirely.
Cut back on the chemicals…
Numerous cities and countries like Austria, France, and Portugal have restricted or banned the use of glyphosate. Furthermore, lawsuits have resulted in Bayer (the manufacturer of Roundup) announcing they will stop selling glyphosate-containing products entirely in the United States. On the individual level, organic compost (or lawn clippings) for natural fertilization, aeration, and high soil quality can all help lower the levels of chemical runoff.
…and the carbon
Planting more trees can help reduce carbon emissions from lawns. And there are other measures that can have substantial, longer-lasting impacts on climate change. For example, replacing gas mowers with electric ones, upgrading your gas cans, reducing the number of landscaping power tools you own, and mowing your lawn less frequently (and in the evening) can all contribute to fewer emissions.
Recently, California voted to ban sales of gas-powered landscaping equipment like leaf blowers and lawnmowers starting in 2024, after studies showed the machines were producing more ozone pollution than all the state’s passenger cars combined.
Wipe out the wastage
In addition to water restrictions in drought-prone areas, places like Maryland’s Montgomery County are paying families and homeowner associations to create gardens that collect stormwater for reuse. People have also started watering lawns with wastewater (gray water) instead of drinking water. And an increasing number are trying “xeriscaping,” or designing landscapes that need little to no irrigation.
On the legislative level, Phoenix, Arizona, has effectively reduced the number of lawns from 80% to 14% since 2000 by charging more for water in the summer and banning lawns on new developments. On a more grassroots front, the Surfriders Foundation, a Southern California surfer environmental group, has helped change turf lawns into ocean-friendly oases, using succulents and other indigenous plants in addition to filtration, water conservation, and runoff reduction via hardscape materials like rocks and gravel.
Permaculture for the anti-waste win
Permaculture is emerging as one of the most popular methods for reducing wastage. Incorporating ways of growing plants that are regenerative and not reliant on annual upkeep or enhancement, permaculture gardens are designed to be mutually beneficial to the plants and the humans caring for them. These horticulturalists aim to use every inch of space, encourage biodiversity and a focus on native plants, and maximize resources like water and soil health while minimizing waste.
On a national level, the nonprofit Green America’s Climate Victory Gardens initiative has led to families planting 14,755 food gardens across America, trapping 4,681 tons of carbon, increasing biodiversity, and decreasing wastage.
Lawns — in a dimming light
The lawn is rightfully slipping from its prior position of glory as we reconsider our place in the world and our effect upon our surroundings, both micro and macro. Through tax incentives and rebates, more intentional and thoughtful practices, and shifts in the ways we address the natural spaces surrounding our homes and businesses, the lawn promises to become more of a bit player.
Whether you get rid of your mower, replace your lawn with drought-resistant plants, or convert to a permaculture garden, you can take important steps to lessening your environmental impact and creating safer spaces for those around you – human and beast.