A Plastic World

Today’s Irish Examiner has a feature concerning the use of artificial lawns. The introduction followed by Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s contribution to the feature article is shown below.

The full article is available at


Plastic grass: Low-maintenance fuss-free greenery — or a menace to the environment?

CAROLINE DELANEY examines the backlash against synthetic lawns, and asks environmental experts for their observations
Plastic grass: Low-maintenance fuss-free greenery — or a menace to the environment?
The idea of durable low-maintenance fake grass is attractive but environmentalists say it is not as fuss-free as we may believe — and it has several drawbacks that ought to be considered before we invest in it.

It’s sold as low-maintenance, fuss-free and durable. And artificial grass is definitely gaining a foothold here. There are dozens of plastic grass specialists across the country offering ‘instant lawns’ to playschools, cafés, hotels, and homeowners. Then, there’s the DIY option with retailers such as Co-Op Superstores, Homestore & More, and Woodies — and even carpet outlets — offering grass tiles or rolls of artificial grass which can be laid in a manner similar to carpet.


Check out our Sustainability and Climate Change Hub where you will find the latest news, features, opinions and analysis on this topic from across the various Irish Examiner topic desks and their team of specialist writers and columnists.

But when we have an official biodiversity emergency as noted by the Dáil in 2019 and the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss in 2022, and when there is a commitment in the Programme for Government to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, is there still a place for artificial grass?

Bloom controversy

Artificial grass has been banned from Chelsea Flower Show but, controversially, showed up in displays at Bloom here in Ireland last year. However, this year there will be no plastic grass at Ireland’s largest garden festival which this year takes place from June 1 to 5.

A Bord Bia spokesperson confirmed: “Bord Bia Bloom actively discourages the use of artificial grass in any on-site activation from sponsors on-site, and there are no artificial grass providers registered to exhibit at this year’s event.”

The garden designers at Bloom are also unlikely to use plastic grass this year, the spokesperson said: “Bord Bia Bloom actively encourages show garden designers to use natural materials where possible.”

Referring to last year’s festival when some visitors and environmental experts said they were disappointed to see plastic grass on display, the spokesperson said: “There are some instances, such as at last year’s event where an exhibitor requested that a very small section of an accessible garden feature artificial grass as natural grass would not have supported the weight of a mechanised wheelchair. However, we strongly recommend to all of our designers that they incorporate natural, sustainably produced plants and grass in their gardens.”

This follows moves in recent years to ban artificial turf from the Chelsea Flower Show which this year runs from May 23-27, and other events run by the Royal Horticultural Society. The RHS, Britain’s leading gardening charity, said no fake grass would be allowed because of its damaging effect on the environment.

What the experts say

Overwhelmingly, experts in biodiversity and environment are calling to ban the use of plastic grass, or put prohibitive tax on it.

Jesmond Harding

The installation of artificial lawns and shrubbery offers convenience but nothing else. The materials used contribute to pollution and the finished product offers nothing but damage to biodiversity. Synthetic plants are made from petroleum and fossil fuels used in their manufacture generate pollution that damages soils, plants, insects, birds, and mammals. Visually, the effect is ugly, and reflects a lack of care for the natural environment. It highlights the disconnect from nature and the idea that natural surroundings are inconvenient rather than a source of wonder and pleasure. I have observed an increase in the use of artificial lawns and plastic shrubs in tubs, and my reaction is to ask why. What is the appeal?

Jesmond Harding is the author of The Irish Butterfly Book.
Jesmond Harding is the author of The Irish Butterfly Book.

Artificial plants look tasteless and cheap. Even those that appear lifelike show an unvarying flat, empty gleam. Sanitising one’s surroundings might be a motivation. Bizarrely, the use of artificial lawns is promoted as a response to climate change, as these do not need watering during drought. The irony of promoting materials that produce climate-warming gases as a solution is exasperating and perverse, an offence to common sense.

There has been an incremental advance in the appearance of synthetic plants. We used to see artificial house plants, such as lilies for indoor vases, progressing to potted shrubs and now to outdoor shrubs and lawns.

On one journey through a local housing estate, I counted the number of hard surfaces replacing grassed gardens, which proved to be two-thirds of the outdoor spaces observed. This trend appears to be influencing new housing developments, with hard-surfaced front gardens or with no front-of-house space, just adjoining on-street parking slots.

There are studies that show links between the decline in butterfly species and atmospheric nitrogen deposition, some of this caused by burning fossil fuels to make artificial plants.

There is no pressure to produce food crops in gardens, so there is no need to apply nitrogen fertilisers which create nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has 300 times the heating power of carbon dioxide. Gardens can be a haven for species fleeing the onslaught of chemically-mediated farming, but only if we grow native grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees in our gardens.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland has found that about half of our butterfly species visit butterfly-friendly gardens, and around one-third of our butterflies breed in gardens containing the right plants and conditions.

A plastic garden has no appeal for our wildlife.

The convenience argument for artificial grass can be answered by using low-maintenance alternatives such as pea gravel sown with drought-tolerant native plants such as kidney vetch, bloody cranesbill and Common Bird’s-foot- trefoil — all great for pollinators and providing a long flowering period giving colour and texture from May to October. There is no such thing as effortless management.

The Irish Butterfly Book: A Complete Guide to the Butterflies of Ireland by JM Harding.
The Irish Butterfly Book: A Complete Guide to the Butterflies of Ireland by JM Harding.

While spot weeding is needed in a gravelled garden, it is also a requirement in artificial turf, where weeds will appear, despite the promise of maintenance-free convenience.

I would like to see the use of artificial plants banned or at the very least subject to high taxation to take account of the environmental damage involved in the production and use of such material. The use of such materials accelerates biodiversity loss; any activity that creates environmental damage should be discouraged or banned.

Jesmond Harding is the author of The Irish Butterfly Book and runs the charity Butterfly Conservation Ireland.