Lawns are big business in our country, with homeowners spending millions of dollars and many hours manicuring their lawns. But are these showcase thatched patches environmental hazards?
Water is in short supply, yet 30 percent of water usage on the East Coast goes to watering our lawns. On the West Coast, 60 percent of water usage goes to lawn care. We pour 10 times more chemicals on our lawns than farmers use in their fields, making lawns toxic for all living things, especially soil microorganisms and earthworms, as well as polluting local water supplies. Up to one-third of bagged household waste going to our landfills is lawn trimmings and leaves raked from our yards.
Traditional gas-powered lawn mowers are responsible for 5 percent of the nation's air pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. One gas mower running for an hour emits the same amount of pollution as eight new cars driving 55 mph for the same amount of time, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Even a seemingly innocuous weed trimmer emits 21 times more emissions than a typical family car, while a leaf blower emits up to 34 times more, according to Eartheasy.
All this adds up to about 800 million gallons of gas burned each year in the quest for the perfect patch. But some of that fuel—about 17 million gallons—doesn't quite make it to the mower tank and winds up spilled on the ground. That's more than the Exxon Valdez spilled in 1989, and chances are that most homeowners do not clean it up. If that spilled fuel is left to evaporate into the air, it creates smog-forming ozone when cooked by heat and sunlight, and it seeps into our water supply.
If your mower happens to have a two-cycle engine, it releases 25 to 30 percent of its oil and gas unburned into the air, along with particulate matter, carbon dioxide and other ingredients of smog. This unhealthy soup we breathe contributes to cancer and damages our hearts, lungs and immune systems.
Want to lessen the environmental impact of your lawn?
The greenest thing you can do is convert your lawn to a vegetable garden and replace the turf with lovely raised beds of edible greens.
If the preceding option is too crunchy for your taste, how about trading in those gas guzzlers for the old-fashioned human-powered kind? Reel mowers are easier to use, quiet and nonpolluting, and you don't have to worry about spilling the gas. With the money you save on gas alone, you could buy a good pair of clippers for the bushes and a scythe for trimming weeds.
If you want to take the work out of lawn care, consider investing in electric mowers and trimmers. Electric mowers range in price from $150 to $450, and the average cost in electricity to power the mower for one year is about five bucks, with no spilled gas and fewer emissions. Propane-powered lawn equipment is a good choice when your lawn is the size of a golf course.
Use less water by catching rainwater in a barrel and attaching a spigot to the bottom of it. You can set up a drip irrigation system that delivers this rainwater to your lawn. Water your lawn early in the morning, when it's not as hot and less water evaporates. Run a fountain pump from your bathtub out the window, and reuse your bath water to water your lawn.
Leave grass clippings on the lawn instead of using chemical fertilizers. This keeps yard waste from landfills and cycles the nutrients from your lawn back into the soil. It also provides a little mulch so that your lawn needs to be watered less.
Use your brain instead of herbicides. If your lawn has dandelions, then your soil has a high pH level. Lower it with sulfur, or spot treat individual dandelions or poison ivy with a shot of vinegar.
Set up a compost pile, or buy a composter for leaves and lawn clippings. Some municipalities won't allow yard waste in municipal landfills. Why waste a good thing? Compost it instead.
Use natural fertilizers instead of chemicals. Corn gluten adds nitrogen to your soil and kills weed seedlings. Use your composted yard waste and vegetable trimmings to build healthy soil on your lawn.