Some years ago in Penge, south-east London we had a neighbour called Eileen who was in her late eighties. Eileen’s flat was the bottom floor of a house with a long, thin back garden, which the housing association had left untended until the weeds were at head height. For a year, we watched (our flat was the top half of the house next door) as Eileen gradually cleared the whole lot. Naively I assumed that Eileen had been inducted into the horticultural mysteries and would begin cultivating roses and delphiniums.
She did not. Eileen, as I came to understand, hated nature. She covered as much of it as she could with a carpet of bright green astroturf, on which she arranged a selection of gnomes and a novelty wheelbarrow. Then she sat out there on a chair, drinking tea and keeping a close eye on the few pots that contained her only real plants in case any of them needed destroying.
I’m not going to pretend that Eileen’s garden wasn’t horrible. It looked like a badly designed miniature golf course. Even the London foxes found it unsettling, and scurried across the plastic grass with flattened ears. However, I wouldn’t have called her back garden an actual crime.
[See also: How the UK can fight global plastic pollution]
And yet, a growing movement of gardeners would: in 2021, almost 33,000 people signed a petition asking for plastic lawns to be banned. In upcoming reforms to the National Planning Policy Framework the Communities Secretary, Michael Gove, is reportedly planning to outlaw artificial grass in new developments. Earlier this week, the Guardian elided the horrific, worldwide plunge in wildlife population with people like Eileen who can’t be bothered with real plants, and quoted naturalists and campaigners who “detest” plastic grass and “would love to see [it] banned”.
On Twitter, an account called Shit Lawns posts regular pictures of plastic lawns for its almost 50,000 followers to deride. It’s linked to by other accounts that pour scorn on “Noddy box” new-build housing, PVC double glazing and cheap extensions. Beneath the environmental concern and respect for good design, there is a strong whiff of snobbery and meanness. People who have the money and time for good design and gardening apparently see it as their job to remonstrate with people who have to take short cuts.
The same sentiments can be found in the conversation around cooking healthy food, which is so simple and cheap (assuming you have the time, space, materials and knowledge, and don’t have to cook it for anyone else). It soon becomes a conversation about duty: a 2021 article from the Spectator blames women for the end of the English garden, because they “have jobs” which they “juggle” with pilates and “having coffee with their friends”.
Is a plastic lawn really so bad for the environment? Using the European Environment Agency’s estimate: if 2.9 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent is emitted in the production of 1kg of plastic, and 2.5kg of plastic is required per square metre, an artificial lawn of 60sqm for a mid-sized urban garden will lead to about 435kg CO2e of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s quite a lot, equivalent to 20 bags of cement. But it’s less than a parking space, much less a car, or an extension, or a family holiday that involves flying. In short, if you have bought any of those things, you have no right to look down on anyone with a plastic lawn.
Plastic lawns are also accused of causing floods and heating up cities. But again, concrete is clearly worse; plastic lawns are at least permeable, and they don’t use the huge amounts of water a real lawn uses (in California, a prescient indicator of the water shortages to come is the fact you can get paid by the state to replace your real lawn with a fake one).
The biodiversity they eliminate by replacing cultivated grass is also small compared with agriculture, which uses 63.1 per cent of the UK’s land (residential gardens make up 4.9 per cent of land, of which roughly half is, as the estate agents say, laid to lawn). Beef releases more than 30 times as much CO2e per kilo as plastic, and has a greater effect on biodiversity loss. A mid-sized plastic lawn has a carbon and biodiversity impact roughly equivalent to two months of one American’s beef consumption.
If we must ban something for being crass, distasteful and environmentally disastrous, then my vote is for cruise ships, which belch CO2 and raw methane into the sky while dumping acidified water and sewage into the sea. If you go on a cruise you are giving whales cancer. Or ban SUVs, which are pointless, lethal to pedestrians and have a carbon footprint bigger than Germany. And finally, if we must ban a type of lawn, ban golf courses. There is so much that could reasonably be banned before we get to plastic lawns.
Were we to do so, we would also restrict a freedom integral to the British way of life: the freedom to sneer privately at other people’s tacky rubbish. The true English garden is not defined by its greensward but by the people in it and their respect for one another’s freedoms. We chuckle at bad taste, we don’t legislate against it.
[See also: The planet needs a plastics revolution]