The Environmental Damage Caused by the Common Lawn

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by Suzanne Ruggles

St Francis and God are conversing …

Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there in the USA? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long lasting blossoms attracted butterflies, honeybees, and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now, but all I see are these green rectangles.

It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord, the Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers “weeds” and went to great extent to kill them and replace them with grass.

Grass? But it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds, and bees – only grubs and sod worms. It’s temperamental with temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

Apparently, not, Lord, as soon as it grows a little they cut it – sometimes twice a week.

They cut it? Do they bale it like hay?

Not exactly Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

No, Sir. It’s just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

Now let Me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow and when it does grow; they cut it off and pay to throw it away.

Yes, Sir.

These Suburbanites must be relieved in the Summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

You aren’t going to believe this Lord. When the grass stops growing as fast, they drag out hoses and pay money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

What nonsense! At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the Summer. In the Autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It’s the natural circle of life.

You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into piles and have them hauled away.

No! What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the Winter and keep the soil moist and loose?

After throwing away your leaves, they go out and buy something they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

And where do they get this mulch?

They cut down trees and grind them up.

Enough! I don’t want to think about this anymore, Saint Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

Dumb and Dumber, Lord. It’s a real stupid move, Lord about …
Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story.

–Author unknown


Lawn mowers have no emission standards and are thus major polluters. One hour of power mowing emits the equivalent in air pollution as driving 350 miles by car. This is a conservative average. Some research puts it as high as 1300 miles by car to one hour of mowing.

According to the EPA: one old gas powered lawn mower running for an hour emits as much pollution as driving 650 miles in 1992 model automobile.

Per hour of operation, a lawn mower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon as a typical auto.

Gallon for gallon, the 2006 lawn mower engine contributes 93 times more smog forming emissions than 2006 cars according to the California Air Resources Board.

National Wildlife magazine, in an article called “How to Mow Down Air Pollution”, quotes Sam Atwood of the South Coast Air Quality Management District as saying, “ “One mower used weekly during the growing season pollutes as much as 43 late-model cars driven 12,000 miles a year.”

Gas lawn mowers also produce carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxide, which in the presence of heat and sunlight combine to form ground-level ozone – a key ingredient in the smog that impairs lung function, respiratory ailments, and heart problems.

In the state of California, all blowers must contain the following warning on their label, “The engine exhaust from this product contains chemicals known by the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm”.

Leaf blowers also distribute debris and particulate matter for long distances. This particulate matter consists, in part, of fine dust particles, dried bird feces and other animal feces, pesticides, insecticides, and other chemicals, molds, pollen, and animal dander.

PM is particularly harmful to children, the elderly, and those with cardiovascular or pulmonary problems, including asthma. And once airborne, there is no way to contain it. Medical literature shows that airborne PM affects lung function, and that chronic exposure to air pollutants can impair lung function permanently.

Research also shows that in areas where blowers are used, people have to wash their cars more often; they keep the windows closed to keep the dust out (which means they use air conditioning more), and/or they clean the interiors of their homes more.

Fuel Use

  • More than 600 million gallons of gasoline are used annually to power lawn mowing equipment.
  • Gardeners spill more than the Exxon Valdez: the EPA claims that 17 millions gallons of fuel are spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment. That’s more than all of the oil spilled in the Gulf of Alaska by the Exxon Valdez.
  • Fertilization and Water
  • Applying 137 pounds of fertilizer to an acre of lawn, which is the recommended treatment, generates 405 pounds

of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. These emissions result from the production, transportation and

application of fertilizers, and are equal to the amount of CO2 released by an average automobile driven 440 miles.

  • Nutrients in fertilizer runoff (including nitrogen which is toxic to humans) are major water pollutants. Sixty percent of the nitrogen applied to lawns annually ends up in groundwater – affecting our drinking water and the health of our aquatic ecosystems.
  • There are black zones in our bays and oceans where nothing is alive because of fertilizer runoff. As a result, there are communities across the country that are banning the use of lawn fertilizer and gas powered lawn equipment.
  • Reducing lawn area, and providing a canopy of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation can reduce storm water runoff significantly.
  • Current lawn care practices are an enormous waste of water – a 1,000 square foot lawn uses 10,000 gallons of water per year. Fully 30% of urban water use is devoted to lawn care.


  • More pesticides are used on American lawns acre per acre than on our farmlands.
  • Over 70 million lbs. of chemical pesticides are applied to lawns in the U.S. each year. (U.S. News & World Report )
  • Of the most commonly used lawn pesticides, 13 can cause cancer, 14 can cause birth defects, 11 can interfere with reproduction, and 21 can damage the nervous system according to the EPA.
  • Government data show that pesticides jeopardize more than 375 endangered or threatened species across the country.
  • Most chemical lawn treatments are highly toxic to songbirds. Not only is there a danger of direct exposure, but these chemicals can contaminate their food and water supply.
  • According to the Audubon Society, fifty pesticide active ingredients currently used have caused documented bird kills, and 67 million birds die annually from pesticide poisoning.
  • Insect pesticides are rarely species specific, and our war against insect pests has had significant casualties. These include butterflies, honey bees and other plant pollinators, dragonflies and other beneficial insects, tiny insects that play vital roles in soil health, and numerous aquatic insects that play critical roles in the aquatic food chain.
  • John Losey and Mace Vaughan of Cornell University’s Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation conducted research and then published an article in National Wildlife Magazine called “What Are Bugs Worth” wherein they state that “All in all, researchers added up a cool $57 billion in useful services that native insects perform each year, free of charge”
  • Where pesticides are regularly applied, 60-90% of earthworms are killed. Earthworms are invaluable for soil health and thus plant health.
  • Birds and other small mammals depend on insects as a food source.

Habitat Destruction and Fragmentation

At one time, there existed a continuum of native habitat. The land was useful for all. Now, that natural, native landscape is fragmented into ever smaller unconnected pieces. Lawns are a major contributor to this fragmentation and to the continued loss of habitat and biodiversity both locally and globally. Each time we install and maintain a lawn, we carve away at our ecostructure.

Noise pollution

The most frequent complaint Americans have about their neighborhoods is noise. Silence is one of the basic human needs, and noise levels in the United States hurt the psychological, cognitive, and emotional well being of its people.

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