Seeking the truest measure of synthetic turf’s benefits versus turfgrass

October 4, 2010  - By

By: Ron Hall

Every week it seems new uses are being found for artificial turf, which now covers horse tracks, dog runs, home lawns (including backyard putting greens), highway medians and is replacing natural grass at airports. I’m sure I’ve missed some applications and am not prescient enough to see what other new uses will be discovered and exploited.

This is not a passing fad. Synthetic turf is here to stay and will continue to replace turfgrass on sports fields or in any other application where it is perceived to offer advantages, such as:

1.) reducing labor and related costs associated with turfgrass maintenance,

2.) being a more environmentally responsible alternative to maintained turfgrass, especially in terms of fossil fuel, water and pesticide use and, especially in the case of sports fields

3.) allowing more participation and improving availability for play or sport.

A lawyer is reputed to have once said: “If I have the law on my side, I pound on the law; if I have facts on my side, I pound on the facts; if I have neither the law nor facts on my side I pound on the table.

While it may be going too far to suggest that the synthetic turf industry is “pounding on the table” in terms of its many claims of overall superiority to turfgrass — especially in terms of its long-term cost and its enviromental benefits — anyone considering replacing turfgrass with artificial turf would be well advised to research these claims thoroughly before putting their money down. Don’t take this as a blanket indictment of synthetic turf; it’s not.

Synthetic turf manufacturers are providing products that expand the availability and usefulness of sports fields in our communities. These products allow greater and more predictable participation even when conditions might be unsuitable or unwise on turfgrass.

We all recognize that, almost certainly the biggest reason why schools and communities replace their turfgrass sports fields with artificial turf. So great is the need to provide safe and consistently available facilities in most communities that, even in the face of the hefty installation costs, the people in charge of providing these facilities —  whether they’re park directors, school administrators, athletic directors or booster clubs — can almost always find ways to fund these conversions.

What’s not so clear, however, are the costs savings and environmental benefits associated converting turfgrass sports field to synthetic, specially on turfgrass faciliites that can, with proper maintenance provide safe playing conditions, the operative word being proper.

Certainly, unlike turfgrass, synthetic turf doesn’t need to be irrigated, mowed or aerated; it doesn’t require fertilizing or treating with pesticides. But, it does require regular water for cleaning and cooling, and ongoing maintenance, including cleaning and sometimes sanitation involving the use of chemicals; it requires sweeping and grooming usually with gasoline-powered equipment. And, unlike turfgrass, artificial turf must be disposed of at the end of its useful life.

While at least one company that I’m aware of has touted its ability to recycle its synthetic turf fields, it’s not clear how this is done or at what environmental cost. I think it’s fair to ask how green is the process of ripping up synthetic turf, loading and hauling it away in big trucks and remanufacturing it into other products?

Finally, in terms of cost, I often wonder if the people raising money and making the decisions to convert from turfgrass to synthetic turf fully comprehend the full long-term costs of turfgrass versus synthetic fields, given that many of them will probably need to be replaced in six to 10 years. The expense of resurfacing these fields runs into several hundreds of thousands of dollars. That money, of course, could pay for a lot of turfgrass maintenance.

While synthetic turf offers schools, communities and, increasingly, homeowners and other property owners a valuable alternative to turfgrass for their specific locations or purposes, claims being made by some synthetic marketers to their products’ environmental benefits, not to mention their long-term costs, reasonable enough on the surface but warrant, as any large capital expense would, a thorough accounting before they’re accepted as fact.

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