Updated Oct 11, 2022
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American homeowners love their lawns. They spend thousands of dollars and countless hours ensuring their plot is the greenest on the block. A bright, green patch of turfgrass may seem innocent enough, but the care that goes into these spaces is a major contributor to global climate change.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, U.S. lawn care uses approximately 3 trillion gallons of water, 70 million pounds of pesticides, and 200 million gallons of gas every year. So while your lawn may look spotless, the environment is paying for it.
We at House Method understand that lawn maintenance is important in transforming a house into a home. On the other hand, we also believe awareness and education about ecological impacts is crucial to responsible homeownership. We’ve compiled this guide to help you understand the environmental impacts of lawn care and what you can do to reduce your yard’s carbon footprint.
Gas-powered lawn equipment like mowers, leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, and weed eaters contribute to climate change by releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and a major worldwide contributor to global warming. Burning fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and gasoline, releases VOCs into the atmosphere, thus heating the planet over time.
You likely aren’t thinking about carbon emissions as you usher debris into a neat pile with your trusty leaf blower. However, a 2020 Princeton Student Climate Initiative report estimates that a consumer-grade leaf blower produces more VOCs than a pickup truck. Similarly, an idling lawn mower produces 124 times the emissions of a truck.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality provides these additional statistics to consider before breaking out the mower:
A House Method study found that Americans spend approximately 384 hours of their lives mowing the lawn. Multiply this by the 260 million adults in the country, and you can see why climatologists are concerned.
You can reduce your lawn’s effect on the environment by swapping gas-powered equipment for electric models. Many electric mowers and leaf blowers are cordless, so you won’t be tethered to an outlet or risk tripping over a cord. Electric equipment doesn’t emit nitrous oxides or volatile compounds like gas-powered models, so you’ll get the job done without polluting the air.
Mowing later in the day is another way to lessen the effects of ground-level ozone formation. Ground-level ozone is a combination of VOCs and oxygen that reacts with ultraviolet light from the sun. When you mow in the morning or mid-day, the equipment emits gases when UV rays are harshest. Mowing in the evening still emits volatile compounds, but those compounds have more time to disperse overnight without high UV exposure.
Plants are important because they sequester or separate carbon dioxide from the air. Grass isn’t good at storing CO2 because it’s a small plant with shallow roots. It sequesters carbon dioxide on a small scale, which diminishes further with constant mowing and trimming.
You may think your yard is too small to harm the environment; however, these postage stamp patches really add up. The United States is home to well over 40 million acres of lawn which ultimately reduce the country’s carbon sequestration capacity.
You can improve your lawn’s carbon sequestration by participating in the No-Mow Movement. This campaign began in the United Kingdom in 2019 to conserve wildlife and natural resources.
The benefits of an overgrown lawn far exceed improved carbon absorption. A taller lawn also means a larger pollinator habitat, better erosion control, and fewer greenhouse gas emissions from lawn equipment. If you like the idea of an outdoor space overflowing with carbon-gulping greenery and biodiversity, you should also consider registering your lawn as a Certified Wildlife Habitat.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates residential landscape irrigation accounts for 9 billion gallons of America’s daily water use. That’s a lot of water, especially in regions with frequent drought and unreliable water resources. To make matters worse, half of the water sprinkled onto U.S. lawns is wasted through evaporation and runoff.
The waste is so high because most homeowners overwater their lawns to keep them green and healthy. As temperatures rise in the summer, homeowners crank up their outdoor sprinklers to provide turfgrass with some daily refreshment. Once autumn arrives, many people forget to adjust their sprinkler schedules to the dropping temperatures, resulting in increased water waste.
Overwatering your lawn harms the environment in two significant ways.
First, it contributes to the worldwide water scarcity crisis. Three percent of Earth’s water is drinkable, freshwater – most of which is trapped in frozen glaciers or underground aquifers. Dumping water onto residential lawns intensifies the waste of this precious resource.
Second, the water a lawn can’t absorb has to go somewhere. Wasted irrigation water leaves the turfgrass as runoff, often carrying soil, mulch, herbicides, and anything else straight into natural bodies of water, thus, harming organisms and polluting ecosystems in the process.
The EPA provides the following suggestions for reducing outdoor water waste:
Lawn fertilization is one of the most popular methods of achieving a lush, green lawn. American homeowners know this and use approximately 3 million tons of synthetic fertilizers annually. According to a Princeton University report, lawns can’t absorb the amount of nitrogen in most chemical fertilizers, leading to a percentage of the product settling in the ground.
Soil microbes break down the excess nitrogen and release it as nitrous oxide, an incredibly harsh greenhouse gas. While microbes are busy breaking down the chemical into harmful gases, the rest of the excess is washed away from the lawn in rainwater. This chemically-charged runoff then flows into nearby bodies of water, killing aquatic life and damaging surrounding ecosystems. It also leaches into the earth, contaminating our vital groundwater supply.
One way to minimize your lawn’s impact is to opt for organic fertilizers. These products still produce nitrous oxide emissions, but their manufacturing process is generally less harmful. This way, you’ll still achieve a lush lawn but support more eco-friendly manufacturing.
You can also create a compost pile with mulch, leaves, and grass clippings as all-natural fertilizers for your lawn. You’ll tidy your turf while cooking up a biodiverse, all-natural fertilizer. Better yet, you’ll keep bags of grass clippings and leaves out of landfills, where they’d break down and emit heat-trapping methane gas.
Pollinators are responsible for one-third of the food we eat. Without these beneficial bugs, the human population wouldn’t have enough sustenance to survive. Unfortunately, the popularity of residential lawn care has decreased the number of habitats for pollinator insects.
These bugs require a wealth of diverse, nectar-rich plants to do their job. More acreage filled with carefully trimmed, manicured turfgrass reduces these plants’ availability, thus decreasing pollinators’ inhabitable space.
The solution to this problem is a beautiful one: make your lawn more inhabitable to pollinators by filling it with wildflowers and native plants. Wildflowers and other native species are adapted to their climates, meaning they’re able to survive without extra help from irrigation, pruning, and fertilizers. This adaptation removes the need for additional lawn care and provides an excellent place for pollinators to do their job.
We understand if you don’t want your yard overflowing with wildflowers. Instead, build a “wild corner,” or natural area of your lawn untouched by herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. This allows you to dedicate a small portion of your outdoor space to wildlife without compromising your lawn goals.
If gardening is up your alley, fill your garden beds with pollinator-attracting perennials. You’ll improve your home’s curb appeal while welcoming beneficial bugs.
We hope you walk away from this article with tactical lawn care solutions for a healthier planet. We understand that giving up lawn care isn’t a realistic option for many homeowners, but knowing and implementing eco-friendly landscaping techniques is an excellent compromise. With this information in mind, you’re closer to building a beautiful, earth-friendly outdoor space.
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