Are Lawns Stupid?

Last spring, the repressive regime of winter was in a full rout.  Days were getting longer, lawns were getting greener.  Stalks of grass standing at attention.  Lawnmowers were everywhere, crisscrossing grassy fields.   Then I saw the most baffling thing – an asphalt roller, trucking over the lawn. But there was no asphalt to roll, no drive-way to level out.  It was off road, confidently rolling the grass. An older gentleman decisively piloting the road construction equipment over his lawn. I was mesmerized. My gaze fixed as I drove by.

What the hell did I just see?

Then I saw it again! And again! I live in a rural era, houses have big lawns, riders are pretty common.  But the sight of rollers – that’s a new one.  I told my colleagues about my baffling experience.  Then about 30 minutes later I saw a lawn maintenance truck roll by, and that trailer? An asphalt roller. I was seeing them everyone. Outside the little village of 400 where I work, there were signs for Lawn Rolling. It was ubiquitous. There’s seasonal windows that people adhere to, rolling lawns is firmly part of the spring lawn maintenance starter kit. See below for a video of lawn rolling if you are unfamiliar with it.

I must admit I thought the idea of using an asphalt roller to roll your lawn was high on the chart of human arrogance.Like using grenades to fish. I had to read about it, why did I never hear about it before?   Before long the idea got in my head, well what about lawns in general? Are they stupid?  Do we spend precious hours of our limited life chasing freshly trimmed turf, for what?  To keep snakes away? Social status? Well after doing some reading here is what I got:

The History of Lawns

The Lawn Institute suggest that humans have an innate desire for lawns, something that is hard coded in us.  An ability to see far distances around our abodes, to avoid hidden dangers in long grass.The notion of a modern lawn seems to date back to Europe to the middle ages.  As a place distinctly different than fields that were used for cattle grazing and agricultural use.  Unsurprisingly the proliferation of lawns was started in Europe and originated in the aristocratic class.   If they were maintained, it was done through intensive manual labour, think scythes and shears. In the field of political science, 1648 is the pivotal date when the modern nation state emerged – in the field of lawnology, 1830 is the pivotal date, when the first mechanical lawn cutter was invented, nothing would be the same again.  It took awhile for this mechanical lawn mower to be perfect, in 1902 the first gasoline powered lawnmower was invented.

No doubt, the proliferation of the suburbs contributed to the growth of lawns.  But one pivotal factor into cementing lawns as a facet of everyday life was the passage of legislation in the US that introduced the 40 hour work week. Prior to that Americans slaved away half a day on Saturdays.  Now Saturday was unlocked as a day off, leaving time to pursue things like maintaining a lawn. The post WWII era, brought up tract housing and a huge exodus into the suburbs. Each new house in the suburbs had a lawn – and it’s this period that brings out the modern era of lawns and lawn care.

Lawn Density in the United States

Lawns are everywhere.   So what’s the surface area of lawns in the US?  It turns out that no one had answered that question, before Cristina Milesi posed this question and answered through studying satellite imagery.  She estimates: 128,000 square kilometres in all.  Three times the amount of corn in the United States, actually larger than any one crop.  And while we don’t usually talk about lawns with the same vocabulary as we do corn, or wheat, the same ideas apply: lawns are the number one irrigated crop in the United States.  So what is the ecological impact on all these lawns?  Well to my surprise they are a net carbon sink.  Although this gets a little fuzzy depending on what assumptions you make about lawn clippings. Lawn clippings sent to the land fill actually create more carbon, as they decompose slowly and let off methane gas.

A map showing the density of turf in the US. Credit: NASA

A map showing the density of turf in the US. Credit: NASA

Maintaining that Turf

What this analysis does not capture is all the work that goes into maintenance. After all gasoline powered mowers and whipper snippers, cause carbon emissions right?  Well it the results of an 2011 EPA study are quite alarming: not just in the terms of carbon emissions.  The amount of poisonous emissions is quite alarming.

Volatile organic compounds emissions (2011):

26.7 million tons of pollutants,
46,800 VOC
Carbon Monoxide: 5,793,200 tons
Nitrogen oxides: 65,500  tons
Carbon Dioxide: 20,382,400 tons

What’s the carbon sinkage of lawns in the US? About 16,782,917.69 metric tons (32 billion pounds), a best case scenario assuming everyone leaves their clippings on their lawns. So we can say that lawn maintenance equipment negates the benefits of carbon sinks of lawns.  Not to mention the harmful health pollutants of lawnmowers and associated equipment, leaf blowers, etc.

As for those other nasties, there are a few emissions in particular that are troublesome: Benzene, 1,3 butadiene and formadehyde, which are in the top four for cancer causing compounds. These are emitted while using these lawn equipment and contribute, well to cancer (leukemia) and have seen some weak links to autism. They are also linked to heart attack, asthma, COPD, stroke, and early deaths. It’s clear from the EPA study that operating lawn maintenance equipment negatively attributes to carbon emissions, and their pollutant output creates negative health externalities to people localized to these activities.  We only have to put up with increased risk of death and debilitating health effects for  a nice looking lawn. I’ll quote the conclusion of the EPA study here:

GLGE [gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment] is an important source of toxic and carcinogenic exhaust and fine particulate matter. Improved reporting and monitoring of localized GLGE emissions should be implemented. Medical and scientific organizations should increase public awareness of GLGE and GLME and identify GLGE as an important local source of dangerous air pollutants. Communities and environmental, public health, and other government agencies should create policies and programs to protect the public from GLGE air pollutants and promote non-polluting alternatives.

The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute had commissioned a study; interestingly enough this study found that lawns are still a net carbon sink, actually asserting they sink more than 4 times the carbon output of mowers.  That doesn’t square with some global numbers I got (i.e., total carbon sink ability, total carbon emissions from equipment).  But none the less, this report that comes from the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute does not discuss all the other nasties that come from mowers and the such: the Benzene, the Formadehyde, etc. It’s also been suggested in another study, that lawns are still net carbon sinks accounting for lawn maintenance. Even suggesting that better maintained lawns are better carbon sinks.  I’ll let the environmental scientist fight this battle out – carbon aside there are other issues to contend with.

Another blow against these lawn and garden equipment – is the noise that is created.  To the point that various jurisdictions have banned their use, or restricted the hours they can be used in.  Which I thought was interesting.

Fertilizers and Pesticides

We’ve some great advances in farming sciences: synthetic fertilizers and pesticides helped boast yields in the fields.  But this technology has been transferred to the everyday Joe and his lawn.  The issue is that these fertilizers inadvertently end up running off into lakes. When it’s in the ocean or lakes, it causes a litany of issues.  Take the Lake Erie saga of algae blooms; of course farmers are more to blame than your average Joe. But fertilizers are squarely part of the blame. The algae creates problems with drinking water and create dead zones; dead algae sinks to the bottom and takes out oxygen of the ecosystem and fish die.

Pesticides do damage too. They get into water ways as the food chain plays it role.  Fish and and other aquatic life eat get poisoned by pesticides, other things eat them up, and then the poison ends up in on your dinner table, resulting in sickness.

Watering your Lawn

As I mentioned earlier on, lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the US. So, to little surprise, it consumes the most water of any other crop. A Water Sense data sheet indicates that American families use 400 gallons of water a day, and one third of that is for outside purposes.  Overall that’s somewhere around 7 billion gallons a day.  It’s been suggested that up to fifty percent is wasted due to over-watering, evaporation and run-off, when watering your lawn.  If you’ve been following the news at all, places like California and shifting climates means that water isn’t as plentiful as it was. Water tables are down, coastal aquifers are being filled with salty sea water because nature can’t fill them up with fresh water enough.

If the arm-chair geopolitical theorist are to be believed, water is going to be the next resource war. One of the books I read in my nascent political-science days Living With Uncle Canada-US Relations in an Age of Empire by Ed Fin, argued persuasively that a potential rift between US and Canada regarding water is in the near-future – NAFTA plays a part.  Most chilling was the case Sun Belt Water Inc. V. Canada, which Sun Belt Water Inc. sued the government because of water exports.   It seems to be the case that water is being used recklessly,  I think it’s clear though, that we can be smarter about lawns and water.

The Bees

I’m not sure if it’s entered public consciousness that bees are not the villains that kids think of them as.  Bees have been in the news lately for colony collapse, turns out that the number of colony collapse is in decline, but still an issue.They provide a valuable service in the green ecosystem, but we constantly set them back by paving more asphalts and by having “traditional” lawns. Bees can’t do much with nice short lawns, they need suitable plants to pollinate and proliferate.  The University of Michigan has a data sheet that briefly discussing the importance of pollinators.

And what about Lawn Rolling?

The idea that kicked off this article.  As I mentioned in the start – lawn rolling, driving steam-rollers around your lawn, how stupid is that?  Well, pretty stupid.  I’ve done some reading and basically everything that wasn’t advertising a service recommended not to do lawnrolling.  I guess the most popular use of lawn rolling is to level off your ground, but it has the side effect of compacting the dirt and making it harder for your grass to grow because it restricts the oxygen in the ground. Now you gotta aerate your lawn.   It’s better to use soil to level out your lawn.

Conclusion

I’m not convinced the ideas of lawns are stupid.  They provide great recreational and leisure space.  But I definitely think that we are apt to over-do our obsession with lawns. Lawn care brings upon a litany of externalities; recklessly using pesticides and fertilizers, make our beaches, our lakes and oceans worse off.  Running gasoline powered equipment contributes to climate change and gives off toxic byproducts linked to cancer and other horrible health outcomes.  Over doing our lawns makes it harder for pollinators.  We spend hours and up to hundreds of dollars on caring for our lawns.  It’s great to have your own outdoor space, there is a sustainable way to manage it, that makes everyone better off.  And hey, if your not obsessed with your turf, you can save time and money too.

So What to do?

Here are some suggestions I keep seeing pop up over and over again.  Climate varies in North America, so look up your specific climate to get specific recommendations.

  • Keep your clippings on your lawn. 18 percent of municipal solid waste is yard waste, which is baffling.
  • You can always try a manual lawn mower, but I’m sure that suggestion isn’t popular.
  • Use battery powered lawn maintenance tools – to avoid all the emissions of gasoline powered tools.
  • Don’t cut your lawn so short, grass benefits from having some length to grow to encourage deep root growth (2-3″ height).
  • Knock off fertilizers or use natural (organic) fertilizers if you absolutely have to. Get a soil test done, to see what you need.
  • Use rain barrel collection to water your lawn (you can get cheap rain-barrels on Kijiji or Criaglist or whatever).
  • Don’t water in the middle of the day, the pros just recommend watering in the morning. Don’t water more than twice a week.
  • Use native plants that are drought resistant and pest resistant.
  • Knock off using pesticides, get some outdoor time and pull em manually. Dandelions aren’t that bad, asides from being a hipster salad, they are great for pollinators and in my opinion have existence value as a nice temporary spring boast of colour.
  • If you do use pesticides, use them sparingly and store them in the original container (i.e., to prevent it from leaking)
  • reduce the frequency you cut the lawn.  We are all going to die one day, and the appearance of your lawn is hopefully not going to fill your thoughts as you slip away to nothingness.
  • You can plant and encourage the growth of ground cover or allow parts of your lawn to populate with natural prairie plants.
  • Repurpose some of lawn into gardens.
  • More tips here

 

Additional Resources:

Shout out to Freakonomics radio, which I used some of the information I learned in their podcast in help writing this article.

Freakonomics podcast on this very subject : “How Stupid is Our Obsession With Lawns”. 

Lawn Maintenance Fact Sheet Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

 

 

 

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