Plastic is NOT Fantastic in a Pollinator Garden

Plastics Rebellion with us under the banner at the shopping centre
*Cover image courtesy of The Basingstoke Gazette

During a little charity shop trip to Chineham Shopping Centre, Basingstoke, on Friday afternoon, I spotted some bustling activity going on in the central area. I hadn’t visited the centre for a number of weeks so I wasn’t sure if it was an event or whether we had just missed a show but then as I got closer a banner started going up and I quickly realised it was some kind of protest. Well, me being me, I just could not resist going over to find out a little bit more and as I came around to the front I was confronted by this overbearing archway of plastic flowers and could clearly see that there was, in fact, an environmental group called Plastics Rebellion getting ready to take action and as soon as they pointed out Chineham Shopping Centre’s new Pollinator Garden I could then also clearly see why they had arranged their small, fun and satirical protest.

What The “Pollinator Garden” Is All About

The shopping centre has said that they have created their Community Pollinator Garden in order to encourage visitors to enjoy lunch at a bench, take a seat and make friends on the chatter bench, take a photo under the archway, pick fresh herbs and watch all of the wonderful pollinators on the (real) flowers. There is so much to love about this whole concept (on paper) but it seems as though once they put these ideas into practice it all fell very, very flat…

What The “Pollinator Garden” Actually Is

The garden isn’t a garden at all, I would say trying to call it that is a reach. It is a small space that has been allocated by the centre for this summer project. The entire central space hasn’t even been utilised, I’m not sure why because it COULD have been a wonderful place to fill with flowers and fruit and veg, bug hotels, a miniature wildflower meadow and perhaps even an insect water station or bird bath. Instead, it consists of a plastic flower archway, plastic grass, a few benches, 1 planter that holds 4 herb plants and another planter with flowers. It is “green” tick-boxing at its best. Has the shopping centre done something for sustainability this summer? A few flowers – Tick!

the pollinator garden at Chineham Shopping Centre

When approached by a local reporter for The Basingstoke Gazette the centre manager said that:

“When planning installations of this type we are mindful of the environmental impact of the project”

And “the high footfall in the area would make real grass an unsuitable option” He also added that “the flowers and plastic grass will be reused”.

It all may well be reused which of course is great but the problem that many residents and Plastics Rebellion have with this is that it has been named and advertised as a pollinator garden and plastics don’t have any place in a garden that is trying to encourage insects.

my son walking under the plastics rebellion banner

Plastics Rebellion’s Antics

Plastics Rebellion caught wind of the “pollinator garden” via a viral thread by local wildlife enthusiast Andrew Cleave. Snapping the garden and posting on Twitter he said:

Many took to the comments to agree that this missed the mark and with @Shitlawns retweeting, the garden certainly got noticed… Maybe not in the way that Chineham Shopping Centre had hoped.

So, Plastics Rebellion decided to visit the garden themselves, dressed as pollinators, to raise awareness of the issue with plastics by chatting with the public (including myself and my son) and highlighting how this could have been done better. Whilst I was there, people were definitely intrigued and it was great to hear some of the conversations going on. It was all good fun but for a very good cause. This is the type of protest that really works as it engages the public with the group members and creates (sorry, pun coming up) a buzz!

Their message was simple “We are here because of this icky plastic grass. A pollinator garden should not be made up of plastic”.

one of the Plastics Rebellion members dressed as a butterfly standing underneath the sign

The Grim Reality of Plastic Grass

Plastic grass has massively grown in popularity in recent years with its selling points being that it’s “cleaner”, it is supposedly low maintenance, it looks good all year round, it is pet and child safe. The sad reality is that it is just yet another plastic product that will leach microplastics into the environment, will take hundreds of years to break down, and will harm wildlife.

Here are just a few facts and figures for you to digest:

  • An artificial lawn of 60sqm for an average urban garden will create about 435kg CO2e of greenhouse gas emissions through the plastic manufacturing process.
  • 2018 report by the European Commission showed that athletic fields composed of synthetic turf shed an annual average of 18,000-70,000 tons of microplastics each year into surrounding air, soils, and waters. This includes huge quantities of crumb rubber, which leaches toxic lead, PFAS, phthalates, and other dangerous chemicals. People and other animals who walk and play on synthetic turf absorb plastic particles and their toxins through the skin, inhalation, and ingestion.
  • A real lawn will absorb carbon whereas the installation of a plastic one will prevent carbon storage and covering the soil with sand will then prevent the carbon storage from happening in the ground.
  • Plastic lawns do not absorb pollutants such as smoke, dust, fumes etc.
  • Plastic grass will, however, absorb heat during the summer months making both the lawn and surrounding areas feel much hotter than it actually is. It has been reported in some cases to get hotter than asphalt in warmer weather. This can lead to burns on the skin or your pet’s pads and is a contributing factor to climate change.
  • It will only last for around 10 years and even though many companies claim that your plastic lawn is recyclable, in most cases this isn’t actually possible with most of these services only being carried out in specialist centres in Europe. Here in the UK it will most likely either be incinerated or go to landfill.
  • Insects cannot survive in a plastic world which means there will be less biodiversity in your garden with the knock-on effect being less food for birds and hedgehogs.
  • Using a plastic lawn will increase the chances of flooding on a property.

What A Pollinator Garden Should Ideally Look Like

Encouraging wildlife and pollinators into your garden is something we can all strive to do and there are some really simple steps you can take in order to achieve this. I have created this graphic which you can feel free to save, screenshot and share:

a graphic showing how to encourage wildlife to the garden

Why Do We Need To Help Our Pollinators?

The UK may look green but we are failing in many ways:

  • Between 2001 and 2021 the UK lost 105,000 hectares of tree cover, that’s a decrease of 6.9%
  • Since the 1930’s the UK has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows
  • The UK’s flying insect population has declined by as much as 60% in the last 20 years
  • Increased urbanisation has significantly reduced our green areas

With this comes the loss of food, habitat, shelter and safe places for egg laying for our native insects. But that’s not all, because when our pollinators suffer so do we. It is through pollination that plants are fertilised and able to reproduce and this includes the crops that we rely on for food. If our pollinators die out, we will follow. These tiny workers do so much more than just collect nectar, they help to create life so we need to do all we can to help them out.

a bee on my finger

Why Companies and Venues Should Be Leading The Way

The reason that Chineham Shopping Centre was targeted by Plastics Rebellion is because they fell short with this project and in a time when we know so much more about the damage that we are causing to our planet we NEED more companies and venues to be leading the way. These are the people who have budgets for these ideas and staff who can conduct the appropriate research. They are the ones in the public eye, who can have such a massive positive influence.

Here in Basingstoke, we have a vast amount of people and groups with conservation, garden, wildlife and green knowledge who could have easily been consulted on this. Those such as Greener Basingstoke, Sustainable Basingstoke (Council Run), Chineham Conservation Group, Old Down and Beggarwood Wildlife Group, Fuzzy Drove Conservation Group, Kempshott Conservation Group, Natural Basingstoke, Sustainable Overton, Wilder Bramley and I am sure many more I am not currently aware of. On top of this, our Council have their very own Green Team. This was a missed opportunity.

Yes, ok there is some good information on the boards in this pollinator garden but when the centre can only deliver a minimal amount of work how can they truly expect others to do better? I visited the centre on Friday as a shopper and I didn’t even notice the garden and I wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t been for Plastics Rebellion as I wasn’t originally heading in the right area to see it. This should have been the wow factor of the shopping centre, a destination, a place for the public to enjoy, be educated and feel inspired in. But 2 planters, a handful of herbs and a carpet of plastic (which by the way was soiled on by a dog whilst I was there and then of course couldn’t be properly cleaned up) doesn’t inspire any wildlife lover.

I do agree that using real grass in this area would have turned the garden into a mud bath, especially with this current summer weather, but the plastic stuff wasn’t needed. The paving slabs being left in view would have been the best choice here – most of us do, after all, have patios in our gardens and we all fill these with pots and planters of flowers. As I said above, I’m not critical of the concept, I am critical of the delivery. This could have been amazing and if it had been done correctly it would be buzzing with pollinators but right now it isn’t.

Moving Forward

I hope that having groups like Plastics Rebellion who are happy to give up their own free time to highlight environmental issues will begin to help people, companies, organisations and venues to sit up, take notice and say do you know what? We CAN do better. This wasn’t done to create negativity it was done to cause a little stir and get the right message out there. Pollinators don’t need plastic they need nature.

my signature

If you’d like to learn more about the loss of insects around the world I can highly recommend the book Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson.

Some information was obtained from:

Plantlife – Artificial Lawns: Is Plastic Grass Bad for the Environment?

Plastic Pollution Coalition – Pass on “Plastic Grass”: Why Natural Options Win Over Synthetic Turf

University of Plymouth – Why are artificial lawns bad for the environment?

The Heart of England Forest – Native Wildflowers under Threat

Blue Patch – Is Deforestation a Problem in the UK?

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