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Spread of fake grass is worse than any ills it is meant to cover up

August 6, 2019

Fake plastic turf lawn seen in a front yard off Cambie Street in March.

It shocks me to see that some Vancouver property owners are so desperate for the appearance of a healthy, green lawn that they are turning to artificial, plastic grass.

So far, I can only point to eight such instances on Vancouver’s West Side and one in Mount Pleasant but that is already nine too many in my eyes.

My friends tell me they have seen many such installations of artificial plastic turf in other parts of the city.

As much as anything, it shocks me that no one else in Vancouver seems particularly shocked, or even bothered, by this trend.

The friends I have talked to about it are not particularly bothered to see the artificial turf. Neither, apparently, are the newspaper columnists that I read, nor the Vancouver City Council, that campaigned a year ago so vigorously against single use plastic by the food trade.

Yet I think that this increased use of AstroTurf artificial turf as a kind of environmental cover up is both awful and awfully unnecessary.

For no possibly good reason it threatens to pollute the city with vast quantities of the kind of plastic waste that I thought we were trying to get rid of.

It is a trend that should be nipped in the bud now, before it has a chance to become the new normal.

Why the grass is greener on the other side

It’s not water that makes the turf nearest the building on the west side of the 2400 block of Oak St. more perfect-looking than the grass on the City’s road verge.

It’s no secret that the only grass with a bright future in Vancouver is sold in licensed cannabis dispensaries.

Between watering restrictions, the armies of walked dogs out doing their doody and the endemic chaffer beetles that crows especially “dig”—not to mention the ever-diminishing spring and summer rainfall—the grass on private property and City boulevards and road verges no longer grows reliably thick and green. Instead it grows thinner and patchier and sicklier-looking by the day.

Private property owners, at least are beginning to turf the whole idea of having a real grass lawn.

Beds of low-maintenance (and relatively environmentally-friendly) gravel that replaced the beleaguered grass along a commercial property on Spruce St.

A custodian for one commercial property in Fairview told me that it was because of the dogs being walked in the area that all the grass fringing the building had been replaced with beds of (ha ha) pea gravel.

In addition to dogs, another dire threat to the grass across Vancouver are the chaffer beetle larvae that now infest almost all lawns.

Not only do the larvae kill the grass by attacking and eating the roots of the sod but birds and other urban critters root up the sod to attack and eat the larvae.

A crow cocking one leg, poised to strike a chaffer beetle larvae in the admittedly lush-looking grass in front of the Vancouver School Board offices on 10th Ave.

Crows especially seem to see Vancouver lawns as a sort of all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. The artful scavengers can be seen spending hours digging up the chaffer beetle larvae (not to mention the lawns) using their beaks and sometimes one leg. (with a leg sometimes also used to apparently help get the grub down their gullets.)

There have been countless legitimate news stories going back three years and more detailing the havoc that dogs and chaffer beetle larvae are wreaking of Vancouver lawns.

At least one of the “news stories” that I turned up in an Internet search was actually a thinly disguised ad for a Vancouver company promoting synthetic turf as a solution to crow’s beaks and dog’s urine.

As Canadian author Naomi Klein explained in a section of her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, entitled “Disaster Capitalism Complex”, companies have grown adept at profiting from disasters.

In that sense, the marketing of artificial turf to home and business owners is all of a piece with the marketing of sunscreen and bottled water.

This leads directly to the other thing that is arguably helping spell the death of Vancouver lawns and that is the gradual effects of climate change.

Rain, rain, going away

Ten years of spring-into-summer in Vancouver showing an overall drop in precipitation.

Over the past decade, Vancouver’s spring and summer periods have gradually seen less precipitation and more heat.

According to annual precipitation totals from February 26th to July 25th, for the years 2009 through 2019, Vancouver is having its driest spring and summer period in a decade..

Over the 21 week period in 2019, the city recorded 227 millimetres of rain. This is a 25 percent decrease over the same period for 2018—which saw 304.4 mm—and more than a 54 percent drop from the 499.99 mm in 2017.

The linear trend in rainfall over the decade is a drop of 35 mm—from 360 mm in 2009 to 325 mm in 2019.

Over the same period of time Vancouver has also trended hotter, although only by about 1°C.

Property owners didn’t get the memo-slash-bulletin

Artificial turf gracing the edge of a bank on the southeast corner of Arbutus St. and 4th Ave.

Whatever confluence of factors is encouraging the spread of artificial turf—lack of water, abundance of heat, dogs, chaffer beetles, ubiquity of cheap ethylene plastic thanks to LNG fracking—It doesn’t appear that Vancouver City Hall is doing very much to discourage the spread.

It has to be said that the City of Vancouver did issue a short, advisory bulletin in 2016 on the subject of artificial turf in the public realm, under the authority of the City’s Director of Planning, which states, off the top:

“The Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability, and Development Services, Building and Licensing departments will not approve artificial turf installations on private property”.

The two paragraph bulletin goes on to state bluntly that “artificial turf is not permitted on private property”.

The main objection given is that that the plastic turf is not deemed to have “fully permeable characteristics, as per Site Coverage regulations in the Zoning and Development By law”.

Otherwise, artificial turf is “not consistent” with City “plans, by-laws, and strategies aiming to protect and enhance ecosystems while improving access to nature for all”. These include: the Citywide Integrated Rainwater Management Plan (IRMP), the Protection of Trees By-law 9958, the Urban Forest Strategy, and the Biodiversity Strategy.

Rather than banning artificial turf for intrinsically being unnecessary and difficult-to-recycle plastic, the City’s objections on purely mechanical grounds of poor rainwater runoff leaves the door open for the future approval of an artificial turf design with “fully permeable characteristics”.

Proponents of artificial turf like to claim that it actually drains better than real grass and that poor drainage is all the fault of poor installation.

Artificial turf lines the road verge along three-quarters of the south side of the 400 block of 8th Ave. Likewise, artificial turf covers the road verge on three-quarters of the north side of the block, in front of Home Depot.

Unfortunately the City’s little-known, two-paragraph, finger-wave of a bulletin hasn’t deterred the installation of artificial turf by a large number of property owners across Vancouver—from small home owners to big banks (the CIBC at Arbutus and 4th) and even bigger chain stores (Home Depot at Cambie and 7th).

According to a 2018 CBC News story (which surfaced the City’s 2016 bulletin), the artificial plastic turf is especially sprouting outside condominium buildings.

That certainly appears to be the case in the condo-rich parts of the Fairview neighbourhood.

A glaring example of artificial turf on the road verge in the 1200 block of 7th Ave., seen August 6th.

Riding along 7th Avenue,  on Tuesday (August 6th), west from Cambie, toward Granville—a stretch lined on both sides with condos—I noticed no fewer than four instances of artificial turf in the 1000 and 1200 blocks.

Notably, all of this fake grass was on the north side of the street, which gets the most direct sunlight in the summer.

We are probably already talking about hundreds of installed square metres across the city of 16 mm-thick bi-plastic material—usually polyethylene blades of “grass” bonded to a harder plastic substrate.

Is artificial turf the last straw, or the next next drinking straw?

A closer look at the artificial green plastic turf and its brown plastic “underlay” at Arbutus and 4th.

This is not, at present, an easy material to recycle and it is not, so far as I can tell, covered by any of British Columbia’s 17 Extended Producer Responsibility recycling programs.

Will Vancouver City Council, which made such a public show of banning plastic straws in May of 2018—well, it sort of banned them, then put off the ban and is now only planning to ban the “unnecessary” use of them, pending Council approval, beginning April 2020 (with various exemptions for health care facilities).

Will that same City Council do anything so public to out-and-out ban the spread of this plastic turf before it covers hundreds of thousands of metres of Vancouver land and thus creates an environmental headache every bit as big (or bigger) than plastic straw use?

But what am I asking?

This is the same City Council that has been content to cover several City soccer fields that are used by adults and children alike with an even thicker kind of artificial plastic turf that is all the more odious for its use of toxic, pebbled car tires as infill!

Closing thoughts—caution reminiscing

One of the things that caused me the most amazement when I arrived in Vancouver in May of 1980, fresh off the highway from my birth-province of bone-dry Saskatchewan, was the discernible water content in the air on a perfectly clear day.

I vividly recall that I began tasting water in the air just a few kilometres after I crossed the Alberta border into British Columbia and I didn’t stop tasting it (or, at least, noticing it) for maybe a year after I was settled in Vancouver.

In those days, I remember that three of the home truths frequently repeated were:

  • The South Coast of B.C. was blessed with a wet, rain forest climate,
  • Vancouver had an endless supply of the best drinking water in the world and,
  • we had all better put some of that water aside for the big earthquake!

Except where the earthquake is concerned, people here have changed their tune considerably. Vancouver is instead described as having a moderate oceanic climate, with dry summers, verging on drought in July and August.

Now, very large numbers of thirsty Vancouverites turn to bottled water to quench their thirst instead of the once universally-admired, municipal tap water.

And of course, the latest travesty—synthetic plastic grass is beginning to take the place of natural grass across Vancouver.

Who would have imagined all of this 39-years-ago, when climate change was barely a notion in the public consciousness—and who can imagine what’s next? Click the images to enlarge them.

  1. It would be interesting to hear the city council of the wannabe greenest city try to explain why plastic lawns are okay but plastic straws are not. If the lawns are okay the the city might want to replace all city controlled green space with plastic grass. Save water. Cut city crew costs maintaining lawns and we would “look” like the greenest city.


    • I have actually now updated the post to include reference to a two-paragraph bulletin issued by the City in 2016 which does bluntly say that artificial turf is not allowed on private property.

      However, I had trouble finding it. Unlike the plastic straw ban, which Vancouver City Council made sure the world knew about, the City hasn’t drawn much attention to the problem of artificial turf on private property. I think the City has been content to look the other way and the bulletin is just butt cover, in case.


  2. Totally with you on the plastic grass issue – and I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of all the other issues entangled with it


  3. Slowcrow permalink

    I must admit that I like the idea of artificial turf being used on traffic medians BECAUSE, it seems insane to entice pollinators to be slaughtered as they seek food (in drought situations especially) from the lush pampered plants that appear there, for drivers’ “enjoyment” (WTF???). As for peoples’ yards, I wonder what happened to Ward Teulon who had That was a “win-win” concept for everybody involved it would seem.


    • Would not bees and wasps—thinking they were seeing real grass—still check out the fake turf for flowering plants?

      Some kind of all-weather, woven hemp carpeting, perhaps. And I’m not entirely joking. Back in 2013 I mentioned in a post how a Kitsilano apartment building had “paved” their crumbling parking lot with large, over-lapping pieces of carpet and that this had proven to be a durable and effect solution for many years.

      So far, I have been unable to find evidence of a woven, non-synthetic “carpeting”, purpose-made for covering medians and suchlike.

      I admit that traffic killing pollinators is not normally front-and-centre in my consciousness. It is a real problem but, at the same time, it is just another one of the seemingly infinite number of negative impacts that human civilization has on the natural environment!

      The numbers of fatalities estimated in a 2015 CBC article on insect traffic deaths is mind-boggling:

      “By extrapolating those numbers with the number of highways across North America, Baxter-Gilbert said he estimates at least 9.3 billion butterflies and 24 billion bees and wasps are are killed by vehicles each year”.


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