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The Environmental Cost of US Lawns

According to a recent article published by Science Daily, “Using census data, satellite imagery, aerial photography, and computer simulations, a NASA scientist estimated that turf is the largest irrigated crop in the United States.” , which raises the question of what is the environmental cost? When we use three times more water to irrigate our lawns than to provide water for corn, it is obvious that we, as a nation, have a serious problem.

We can thank Cristina Milesi, an Italian remote sensing scientist at California State University-Monterey Bay and the NASA/Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California, for this stunning but chilling revelation. Using census data, satellite imagery and aerial photography, Cristina was able to estimate the total amount of turf found in the 48 contiguous states. Computer simulations were used to estimate the environmental impact of maintaining all these lawns.

Exactly how much of the United States is devoted to lawns or turf?

According to Cristina’s study approximately 128,000 square kilometers or nearly 32 million acres of the United States are covered in grass. This officially makes turf the largest irrigated crop in our country. Put together, we have enough grass in the United States to create a single lawn big enough to cover the entire state of Kentucky or 40,411 square miles.

How much money is spent on lawn care in the United States?

Lawn care in the United States is big business – although estimates vary, a 2002 Harris survey suggests that as a nation we spend $28.9 billion a year. To put this into a personal perspective that translates to approximately $1,200 per household.

These are 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 residential water in the United States is used for landscaping – most of it for simply watering lawns. That 50-70% of our residential water translates to about 10,000 gallons of water per summer per 1,000 square foot lawn.

Do lawns provide environmental benefits?

On some level – Yes. In fact, naturally maintained organic lawns can even act as effective carbon sinks (more so than chemically treated lawns). Lawns and trees provide the following benefits:

  • They make it possible to fight against the urban “heat island” effect
  • They provide some level of oxygen conversion
  • They provide some level of air particle filtration

Although lawns provide limited benefits to the environment, due to the amount of water and chemicals we use to maintain them, we also need to understand the environmental cost.

The Environmental Cost of American Lawns

If using between 50-70% of our residential water just to water our lawns isn’t scary enough, consider the following facts from the Safer Pest Control Project:

  • 78 million homes in the United States use garden pesticides
  • $700 million is spent annually on lawn pesticides in the United States
  • 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides are added to lawns in the United States each year
  • We use three times more pesticides on our lawns per acre than on our agricultural crops

We are not only wasting water, a once finite commodity, we are also wasting literally poisons our environment. By spreading the toxins found in common garden pesticides, we cause an incredible amount of ecological damage.

American turf damage is not limited to pesticides, as a nation we use more 58 million gallons of gasoline while mowing our lawns. At $2.75 a gallon, which isn’t available in my area, it’s $159,500,000 in gasoline. A single lawn mower can create as much pollution in an hour as a car driven twenty miles.

Lawn mowers aren’t the only environmental threat – the ubiquitous leaf blower expels about twenty-six times more carbon monoxide and forty-nine times more particulate matter than a new light vehicle.

The human element

As we literally spray millions of pounds of pesticides and other lawn chemicals around our homes every year, it should be obvious that the toxins make their way into our food chains and/or our water tables and then eventually into we.

Consider the fact that 100% of fish found in urban areas contain at least one pesticide. Additionally, according to Jason Phillip of EcoLocalizer, 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 goes on to say that “approximately 7 million birds die each year due to exposure to lawn care pesticides.” If our pesticides have migrated to local fish populations, why should we believe that they have not migrated to us? If our pesticides are toxic to a variety of animals, why shouldn’t they at least be toxic to humans at some level? According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences, 1 in 7 people have had their health affected in some way by lawn pesticides.

As adults, we may be less sensitive to lawn pesticides, but our children and pets are at particularly high risk due to their size and proximity to the ground. Children are even more at risk because of their state of physiological development. The dangers of pesticides for children have 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 want to create a “safe lawn”, there is a helpful non-profit group called “SafeLawns for a Healthier Planet” which has made it its mission to “educate society about the benefits of proper lawn care and of environmentally friendly gardening, and effect a quantum shift in consumer and industry behavior.”

You can find lots of useful information in the form of news, event updates and helpful explainer videos at:

  • http://www.safelawns.org/

An important initiative sponsored by SafeLawns for a healthier planet that I encourage everyone to participate in is the “SafeLawns Million Acre Challenge”. The purpose of this initiative is to encourage participants to commit to “commit to caring for their lawn in an environmentally friendly way, by eliminating synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, using push and/or electric mowers, and watering and planting responsibly.”

If you would like to participate in the SafeLawns Million Acre Challenge, visit:

  • [http://www.safelawns.org/Million-Acre-Challenge.cfm]

While America may be in love with its lush green lawns, the time for change is upon us. Even our own government is taking steps towards more sustainable gardening practices. In the fall of 2007, SafeLawns for a Healthier Planet, in conjunction with the National Parks Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency, began maintaining a central 4.3-acre section of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in a manner non-toxic and environmentally friendly. Isn’t it time we all jumped on the bandwagon? Together we can create a safer, less polluted and non-toxic environment.

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