The Adverse Effects of Green Lawns
An Essay By
English Composition 121
February 26, 2002
Essay: The adverse effects of green lawns.
Lush, green, beautiful lawns surround almost every house in my suburban neighborhood. Green lawns are part of suburban culture. Few people consider the idea of not having one. The Associated Landscape Contractors of America, a trade group, claims, "A properly installed and maintained lawn gives homeowners a 100 to 200 percent return on their investment and increases overall property values in the neighborhood". Conversely, a poorly maintained lawn reduces property values for the neighborhood. Thus it makes sense to believe that people who own lavish, evenly trimmed, green lawns with no weeds or insect pests are good neighbors and responsible citizens.
This, however, doesn’t mean that a nation of neighborhoods with such lawns is a nation of good neighbors and responsible citizens. Such neighborhoods come with a hidden cost to society and to future generations. All homeowners know the price they personally pay to maintain their lawn. But they might not know that, far from being a harmless means of beautifying homes, the maintenance of lavish lawns has at least four serious consequences for society: pesticide toxicity, fertilizer runoff, water consumption and greenhouse gas production.
Each year, 67 million pounds of pesticides are used on lawns across the United States. This is about five to nine pounds of pesticide per acre of lawn (Daniels Stivie, The Green Lawn Handbook, 8). Pesticides are chemicals that are used to kill insects that live in grass. Even though few people consider pesticides to be toxic or harmful to humans, U.S. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada said “chemicals used in lawn care may cause cancer, nerve damage, liver and kidney damage, birth defects, and even death.” (The Use and Regulations of Lawn Care Chemicals, 2)
Not many people are aware that lawn pesticides can be lethal. In a Senate Hearing on the subject of pesticides, Thomas Prior of Maplewood, Virginia talked about the death of his brother after exposure to pesticides. “He became grotesquely swollen; enormous blisters appeared on his body; one by one his organs failed; his skin sloughed off and he became blind. The pain was ceaseless and after fourteen excruciating days, he died.” (The Use and Regulation of Lawn Care Chemicals, 21)
Lawn pesticides are harmful to wildlife, too. If pesticides can kill a human being, then we can imagine what they can do to wildlife. Seeing geese, squirrels, prairie dogs, and rabbits is quite normal in suburbia. These and many other animals naturally feed on grass, and lawns might seem to be excellent food sources for them. Diazinon (a type of pesticide) was banned in 1986, because it resulted in the death of songbirds, waterfowl, eagles, and other birds of prey (Daniels Stivie The Wild Lawn Handbook, 6).
Lawns don’t absorb all the pesticides applied to them. The rest are washed into the water table, where they contaminate the drinking water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, pesticides have been found in the groundwater of dozens of states (The Use and Regulations of Lawn Care Chemicals, 10). This causes an increase in the price of drinking water, because the government has to spend more money on purification.
Fertilizer runoff is another major problem. According to a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, only about 50% of the nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizer is utilized by plants. The rest is dissolved in the groundwater. When this runs into rivers, it causes tremendous growth in the number of bacteria and microscopic plants suspended in the water. These organisms use the oxygen which would normally be available for marine life.
The portion of the Gulf of Mexico which receives the effluent of the Mississippi River is so low in oxygen that it is referred to as a "Dead Zone". All fish and shrimp have abandoned this zone. Marine animals, which are not able to flee, such as ground feeders and worms, have died. This dead zone is in the center of one of the most important commercial and recreational fisheries in the United States (Flux and Sources of Nutrients in the Mississippi – Atchafalaya River Basin, 4).
As water is becoming a major issue of the new century, we continue using water to irrigate our lawns. The average lawn requires about 10,000 gallons of water over the course of a summer to keep it green. This water is often diverted from other uses, such as agriculture. By the year 2005, at least 40% of the world’s population might face serious problems with agriculture, industry or human health, if they rely only on natural freshwater. Severe water shortages could strike even water-rich countries such as the United States (Scientific American, 42-43).
Greenhouse gasses are produced both by the decomposition of grass clippings, and by the use of lawnmowers. Clippings disposed of in sealed plastic bags are broken down into methane. Methane traps over 21 times more heat per molecule than carbon dioxide. Most lawn mowers use two-stroke gasoline engines, which are very inefficient at creating power from hydrocarbon fuels, and are highly polluting (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2001).
Thirty million acres, totalling roughly 468,750 square miles, are devoted to American lawns (Jenkins Scott. The Lawn: A History of American Obsession). Individual homeowners cannot ignore the rights of their neighbors to maintain the value of their homes, but as a nation we cannot ignore the hidden costs of this use of resources. Perhaps the solution to this conundrum is to develop a new national consensus on what constitutes a truly beautiful lawn.
Daniels, Stivie. The Green Lawn Handbook. Macmillan: New York, 1995
Geleick, Peter. “Making Every Drop Count.” Scientific American Feb. 2001: 42-43
Jenkins, Scott. The Lawn: A History of American Obsession: Washington, DC: 1994
Lawn and Gardens. (2001): 9 pars. 23 Feb 2002
United States Department of Commerce. NOAA Coastal Ocean Program. Flux and Sources of Nutrients in the Mississippi – Atchafalaya River Basin. Series 17, Washington: GPO, 1999.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Greenhouse Gas Emmisions from Mananagent of Selected Materials in Munipal Solid Waste. Washington: GPO, 1998
United States Senate. Committee on Environment and Public Works. The Use and Regulation of Lawn Care Chemicals. 101st Cong., 2nd sess. Washington: GPO, 1990