Biden’s America the Beautiful: From Synthetic Turf to New Wilderness
Forty years after Reagan judged ketchup a school lunch vegetable, Biden deems Astroturf untamed prairie.
6 minute read
A week after he was sworn in, President Biden released a statement announcing executive actions to address climate change and restore scientific integrity in federal agencies. Among them was a commitment to conserve at least 30 percent of lands and oceans by 2030, a global concept known as “30 by 30” which the White House later branded “America the Beautiful.”
As if by magic, a press statement praising Biden’s press statement quickly materialized from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC):
After a drumbeat of headlines in recent years detailing nature’s decline, there’s very good news from the Biden administration, with the president pledging to put America on the path of protecting at least 30 percent of its land and 30 percent of its ocean areas by 2030 (30x30).
[Note to reader: It’s really not magic. Someone from NRDC likely helped write the Biden executive actions and the White House press release, as well.]
Within 24 hours of both press releases, a Biden-friendly feature appeared on National Geographic’s website, promoting America the Beautiful, with gorgeous photos of Montana prairies, colorful Pacific corals outside of Hawaii, and a climber scaling a sheer, ochre-colored cliff at Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. “I think as this announcement rolls out, people are going to want to dive into the weeds of what it means,” a DC-based environmentalist told National Geographic. “But they can’t forget the scale of ambition the president is asking us to consider.”
A year later, people have dived into the weeds of the President’s ambition and pulled up plastic grass.
After E&E News reported that Biden officials said America the Beautiful includes all lands, “from synthetic turf to new wilderness,” Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) sued to investigate if fake grass companies are trying to greenwash their image. “The suit seeks to determine whether the Biden administration has decided to subsidize a product containing toxic ingredients as part of a program that purports to further ‘green’ goals,” states a PEER press release.
As E&E News notes:
Plastic blades in artificial turf pose their own hazards for people and the environment at a time when pollution has become a widespread public concern. Another area of mounting scrutiny is the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are used in the manufacturing process for turf. Only a few PFAS are well studied, but the family of thousands of chemicals is a top priority for EPA, which is in the process of collecting more data on the compounds.
Last summer, the National Park Service announced grants to install astroturf in parks across the country, mostly in low-income neighborhoods which offer little outdoor recreation. “These grants contribute to the Biden-Harris administration’s America the Beautiful initiative,” reads a NPS press release. The statement also lists two alphabet soup projects involved in petrochemical grass projects: the Land and Water Conservation Funds (LWCF) which funded the chemical grass playgrounds through another program called the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP):
For more than 55 years, the LWCF has invested revenue derived from federal offshore oil and gas royalties into more than 45,000 outdoor recreation projects in every state. The ORLP program aims to increase outdoor recreation opportunities in economically disadvantaged communities in densely populated cities of at least 50,000 people
In other words, money from oil and gas companies is being used to grow petrochemical grass and then dump it on playgrounds in poor neighborhoods.
In one example, oil and gas money helped develop Portland’s Cully Park which sits on a former landfill in a predominantly minority and low-income neighborhood. “The grant restored habitat and supported development of an accessible playground,” chortles the Park Service.
Portland’s webpage for Cully Park applauds:
In partnership with Verde and Let Us Build Cully Park! has transformed a former landfill into a new 25-acre park for Portland’s most diverse, park deprived neighborhood. Cully Park is a catalyst for neighborhood improvement and a symbol of what the Cully neighborhood can be.
The Cully Park webpage adds that the playground has been carpeted in “Forever Lawn surfacing” and features a photo of a young girl climbing up rock steps, with chemical grass in the background.
Oddly enough, Cully Park’s forever lawn kiddie park likely sits on a small mountain of even more petrochemical turf, forever entombed in the landfill below.
Last year, PEER exposed how the synthetic grass companies claim in advertisements that worn-out chemical turf can be recycled, even though no recycling facilities exist to process fake grass. In reality, plastic playgrounds end up in landfills, just like the one Cully Park sits atop.
“The industry is increasingly being stigmatized,” says PEER’s Jeff Ruch regarding chemical grass companies inserting themselves into Biden’s America the Beautiful. “And this is a way to destigmatize themselves.”
Astroturf: The New Ketchup
Biden’s attempt to turn fake grass into real life wilderness calls to mind a similarly cringeworthy program during the 1980’s to reinvent ketchup as a vegetable for school lunches. After the government cut subsidies for school lunches, DC officials allowed schools to “credit a condiment such as pickle relish as a vegetable."
Realizing that fake food was a real story, journalists began writing that ketchup could be counted as a tomato.
Jokes with ketchup as vegetable resurfaced in 2010, when the processed food industry blocked federal guidelines to improve nutrition in school lunches. Lobbyists for the American Frozen Food Institute succeeded in keeping pizza listed as a vegetable, as long as it came with at least two tablespoons of tomato paste.
PEER’s Ruch says it is too soon to see what will happen with Biden’s plans to let astroturf playgrounds built atop landfills to serve as wilderness. “This policy might never pass, and this will become an entire navel gazing exercise for the Biden administration.”
So perhaps ignore all the policy weeds—plastic and otherwise—and applaud the President for earnest ambition. And join Ray Charles in singing “America the Beautiful” while enjoying a vegetable called pizza.
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