The Eden Project Abandons Principles, Installs Plastic Grass in Kids' Play Area

The popular environmental project has an odd interpretation of sustainability.

Eden Project biomes, aerial view

Andrew Holt / Getty Images

The Eden Project is a visitor attraction in Cornwall, England. Consisting of two huge domes built to replicate a rainforest environment and a Mediterranean environment, as well as a botanical garden, the Eden Project is meant to set an example for sustainability. Visitors leave feeling inspired to care for the Earth, having learned about the interconnected systems that support our singular planet.

A recent installation in the children's play area, however, has people scratching their heads. The Eden Project confirmed to the Guardian that it put plastic grass, aka artificial turf, in the play area to keep children from getting muddy. 

A spokesperson said, "To ensure the safety of the children enjoying this temporary play area, we took the decision to use durable and soft artificial grass that will be reused many times over. Real grass, in this context, would become mud within a few hours and therefore would not have been sustainable."

This is a very surprising statement from an institution whose stated mission includes "[demonstrating] to people that we can live with the grain of nature." To my ears, "living with the grain of nature" sounds an awful lot like accepting a bit of mud on one's hands and knees as a reasonable tradeoff for some great outdoor play in a natural environment.

But apparently Eden disagrees and thinks the inconvenience of muddiness is a greater travesty than protecting the Earth from yet more hard-to-recycle plastic waste, potentially harmful chemicals, and general degradation.

Plastic grass is notoriously awful, made from a mix of plastics (polypropylene, polyurethane, polyethylene) that increase heat in areas where it's used, rather than providing the refreshing cooling effect that a true grassy lawn offers on a hot summer day. Many artificial turf-makers are pushing hard to frame their products as eco-friendly, but that's pure greenwashing.

Researchers from Yale University examined the rubber tire infill that's used beneath synthetic turf, as well as rubber mulch on toddler playgrounds. They found 96 chemicals, less than half of which have been tested for toxicity and health effects, and 20% of which are probable carcinogens. 

In other words, it's not the kind of stuff I want my kids playing on. Real grass might come with some mud, but it has none of those worrisome chemicals to contend with.

Plastic grass suffocates the ground beneath, makes drainage worse, and increases risk of urban flooding. It offers nothing to pollinators or other wildlife that might benefit from having a new patch of grass, weeds, and wildflowers to enjoy. When it breaks down, it releases microplastic particles into the environment which never be collected or cleaned up. The pellets can be ingested or inhaled by children.

Charlotte Howard, a gardener from Wiltshire who campaigns for natural landscapes, told the Guardian, "When I have gone in to remove artificial lawns the mess is horrendous. They often stink, and when you lift up the plastic grass you find a sea of dead worms." Nor is it maintenance-free. "Pet faeces have to be scraped off, the grass pile has to be swept, weeds creep through, pet urine causes bad smells, and the plastic eventually breaks down," Howard said.

Those flecks of mud don't seem nearly so bad anymore.

There are bigger questions to be asked here, too. What do we expect of our children when they play? Why should cleanliness and a heightened preoccupation with "safety" take priority when planning a playground? Surely Eden, of all places, would understand that getting up close and personal with nature is a profoundly important experience for children—and even more so when it occurs in everyday life, not limited to an exhibit. Why not install a tap to let kids wash up after play? 

What drives this societal preoccupation with perfect-looking grass, anyway? Even the real stuff is impractical, labor- and chemical-intensive, and there are far better options for creating a kid-friendly space, such as clover or even natural wood chips. As ecologist Dr. Robert Francis said, "Artificial lawns meet the cultural requirements of 'good' lawns. Yet they do so at the expense of any remaining 'naturalness' and embodiment of life."

This is a disappointing decision by the Eden Project. Sadly, it undermines its credibility as an institution that claims to be dedicated to "regenerative sustainability" and "making things better, not just less bad; environmentally, socially and economically." 

Plastic grass in the children's play area is so far from being regenerative, it's a blatant failure and a solid step toward making thing worse. Perhaps we could call it "regressive sustainability." I suggest they update their website.

View Article Sources
  1. Jia, Xinhua, et al. "Temperature Increase on Synthetic Turf Grass." World Environmental and Water Resources Congress, 2007, doi:10.1061/40927(243)240

  2. "Artificial Turf: Chemical Analysis." Environment & Human Health Inc.

  3. "Plastic Grass Isn’t Green: The Problem With Artificial Turf." Canada Environmental Defence, 2022.