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The Environmental Cost of US Lawns
According to a recent article published by Science Daily, “Using census data, satellite images, aerial photographs, and computer simulations, a NASA scientist estimated that turf grass is the single-largest irrigated crop in the United States” which begs the question what is the environmental cost? When we use three times as much water to irrigate our lawns than to provide water for corn it is obvious we, as a nation, have a serious problem.
We can thank Cristina Milesi, an Italian remote-sensins scientist at California State University-Monterey Bay and at NASA/Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. for this amazing yet frightening revelation. Using census data, satellite images and aerial photographs Cristina was able to estimate the total amount of turf grass found in the 48 contiguous states. Computer simulations where used to estimate the environmental impact of maintaining all those lawns.
Exactly how much of the United States is dedicated to Lawns or Turf Grass?
According to the Cristina’s study about 128,000 square kilometers or nearly 32 million acres of the United States are covered with turf grass. This officially makes turf grass our nations largest irrigated crop. Placed together we have enough turf grass in the United States to create a single lawn large enough to cover the entire state of Kentucky or 40,411 square miles.
How much money is spent on maintaining US lawns?
Lawn care in the United States is big business – while estimates vary a 2002 Harris Survey suggests as a nation we spend $28.9 billion yearly. To put that into a personal perspective that translates into approximately $1,200 per household.
It’s just our lawns, how much water could they use?
No matter how attached you are to your lawn it’s important to understand that between 50-70% of the United States residential water is used for landscaping – most of it to simply to water lawns. That 50-70% of our residential water translates into about 10,000 gallons of water per summer per 1,000 square foot lawn.
Do lawns provide any environmental benefits?
At some level – Yes. In fact, naturally maintained organic lawns can even act as effective carbon sinks (more so than chemically treated lawns). Lawns along with trees offer the following benefits:
- They help fight the urban “heat islanding” effect
- They provide some level of oxygen conversion
- They provide some level filtration of air particulates
While lawns do offer some limited benefits to the environment, due to the amount of water and chemicals we use to maintain them, we also have to understand the environmental cost.
The Environmental Cost of US Lawns
If using between 50-70% of our residential water to simply water our lawns isn’t frightening enough then consider the following facts from the Safer Pest Control Project:
- 78 million households in the United States utilize garden pesticides
- $700 million is spent annually on pesticides for lawns in the US
- 67 million lbs of synthetic pesticides are added to lawns in the US each year
- We use three times as much pesticide on our lawns per acre as we do on our agricultural crops
We aren’t just wasting water, a previous limited commodity, we are also literally poisoning our environment. By spreading the toxins found in common garden pesticides we are doing an amazing amount of ecological damage.
The damage caused by US turf grass isn’t limited to pesticides, as a nation we use over 58 million gallons of gasoline when mowing our lawns. At $2.75 a gallon, which isn’t available in my area, thats $159,500,000 dollars worth of gasoline. A single lawn mower can create as much pollution in one hour as a car driven for twenty miles.
Lawn mowers aren’t the only environmental threat – the ever present leaf blower expels about twenty six times the carbon monixide and forty nine times the particulate matter of a new light-duty vehicle.
The Human Element
As we spray literally millions of pounds of pesticides and other lawn chemicals around our homes each year it should be obvious that the toxins will work their way into our food chains and or water tables, then eventually into us.
Consider the fact that 100% of the fish found in urban areas contain at least one pesticide. Furthermore, according to Jason Phillip of EcoLocalizer, out of “30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 16 are toxic to birds, 24 are toxic to fish and aquatic organisms, and 11 are deadly to bees.” He continues with the fact that “Approximately 7 million birds a year die from exposure lawn care pesticides.” If our pesticides have migrated into local fish populations why should we believe they haven’t migrated into us? If our pesticides are toxic to a variety of animals why wouldn’t they be at least poisonous to humans at some level? According to a report from the National Academy of Sciences, 1/7 people have had their health negatively impacted in some form by lawn pesticides.
As adults we may be less susceptible to lawn pesticides but both our children and pets are at especially high risk due to their size, and proximity to the ground. Children are further at risk because of their state of physiological development. The dangers pesticides pose to children has been documented by numerous studies including those from Yale University and Mt. Sinai Medical Center.
How Can I Create a Safe Lawn for my Family?
If you’d like to create a “safe lawn,” there is a helpful non-profit group aptly titled “SafeLawns for a Healthier Planet” that has given itself the mission of “educating society about the benefits of environmentally responsible lawn care and gardening, and effect a quantum change in consumer and industry behavior.”
You can find lots of useful information in the form of news, event updates and helpful how-to videos at:
An important initiative sponsored by SafeLawns for a Healthier Planet that I’d encourage everyone to participate in is the “SafeLawns Million Acre Challenge.” The goal of this initiative is to encourage participants to pledge to “commit to caring for your lawn in an eco-friendly way, by eliminating synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, using push and/or electric mowers, and watering and planting responsibly.”
If you’d like to participate in the SafeLawns Million Acre Challenge then visit:
While the United States may be in love with it’s lush green lawns the time for change is upon us. Even our own government is taking steps towards more sustainable gardening practices. In Fall of 2007 SafeLawns for a Healthier Planet along with the National Parks Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency began maintaining a 4.3 acre center section of the National Mall in Washington, DC in a non-toxic, environmentally friendly manner. Isn’t it time we all followed suit? Together we can create a safer, less polluted, non-toxic environment.
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