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The Beasts behind the Beauty-American’s Obsession with Lawns
It started with a normal dinner conversation, when I mentioned that in the movie The 11th Hour, there was a piece of information where I learned that we, the Americans, spend as much on our lawns as the income tax of the whole India. Eyebrows were raised, forks were being laid down, and my brother-in-law looked at me as if I have just said some crazy stats in baseball, that expressions said only one thing: “Impressive numbers, but I don’t really care.” Indeed, the comparison seemed a bit random at the time, however, I started to dig in further and realized that it was not just the money that we spend on our lawn, the real cost of that beautifully maintained lawn, is far beyond 28.9 billion dollars a year 1.
First of all, we need water, lots and lots of water. According to EPA WaterSense 2, 54% of water usage for American house hold goes to landscaping, while in Germany, the percentage for watering their gardens (plus washing their cars) only takes up 6% of their water usage, because of this, American uses 650.3 liters per capita per day while on the other end of the Atlantic, the Germen only uses 122 liters per capita per day3. Then we will need to fertilize, so the lush can be lush-er and green can be greener. Fertilizers, they do not just drop onto our lawns from the near-by trees and stick to the roots of our grass and nourish them underneath contently, they are usually shipped from the other end of the world4 and they run off5. Fertilizer plants are more often than not built in the developing countries, such as India, and due to the lack of a solid toxin-control system implemented by the factories and the government, their workers are usually the first to suffer6. The shipping process consumes yet another layer of energy. When the fertilizer has finally completed its task, it will be washed away by the rain water, or the 10,000 gallons of water per acre7 we recklessly pour on our lawns, rain or shine. These fertilizer run-offs create patches and patches of ocean dead zones at almost every entrance of rivers8. The phytoplankton bloom first feeds a much greater amount of fish beyond the normal carrying capacity of an area, and when the plankton dies and decays, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean while taking all the oxygen along, hence creating an oxygen-free layer of water. And to keep them lush and green, we need pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, anything and everything to kill the unsightly weeds (to my great surprise when I first moved to the States, I realized this meant dandelions as well). We all know those things are bad, but exactly how bad are they? In the January, 2001 volume of Epidemiology, it went through the numbers associated neuroblastoma (a brain tumor that usually happen to children under 2) and found out the strong likelihood that these herbicides are carcinogens 9, 10, 11.

What can we do then? It seems like our obsession with our lawns is another un-changeable way of the American life, is there no other way? There is always another way. The only time I have water on my lawn is when it rains. We want to live in the suburb to enjoy the nature, yet we want to bend the nature into the way we want it. Instead, plant hardy, local plants, and take a look at EPA’s suggestion, use their water budget Excel sheet12 to tailor-make a garden that fits the environment. Only this way, will we be able to create a beautiful lawn, that is truly, sustainably, green.

References:
1. The Environmental Cost of U.S. Lawns
(http://ezinearticles.com/?The-Environmental-Cost-of-US-Lawns&id=1118004)
2. Environmental Protection Agency, WaterSense
http://www.epa.gov/WaterSense/about_us/index.html
3. Datum zum Umwelt
4. List of Indian fertilizer factories
http://www.energymanagertraining.com/Plot/Fertilizer.htm
5. NASA Phytoplankton Deadzones
color/science_focus.shtml/dead_zones.shtml
http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=14372
6. News for the toxic fertilizer in India:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3096893.stm
7. Usage per acre of American lawns in the summer:
http://ezinearticles.com/?The-Environmental-Cost-of-US-Lawns&id=1118004
8. Definition of Ocean Dead zones:
http://disc.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov/oceancolor/additional/science-focus/ocean-
9. 10. 11.The relation between herbicides and neuroblastoma
http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.rpi.edu/stable/pdfplus/3703674.pdf?acceptTC=true
http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.rpi.edu/stable/3703674
http://www.chem-tox.com/pesticides/
12. Help is on its way, take a look at this EPA site:
http://www.epa.gov/WaterSense/spaces/landscape_photos.html