Synthetic Turf, Artificial Grass or Stepford Lawns ?

By October 13, 2009Sustainable Landscaping

Recently there has been a large movement towards installing synthetic turf. This new generation of Astro Turf often called ‘eco turf’’, is being touted as the newest in green landscaping. To be sure, there is an impressive list of ecological concerns that this turf addresses including the elimination of the need to mow, water, install irrigation, control weeds, fertilize or haul away grass clippings.

The latest synthetic turf is even made from recycled plastic and is recyclable at the end of its life. It is true that you can play on it in the rain and it won’t get muddy and it is wheel chair accessible. That looks like we have solved a bunch of issues all with one product, so what’s not to like?

Synthetic turf

Stepford Lawns =  pseudo green product

Remember the part in the movie, The Stepford Wives where one of the Stepford wives gets stabbed and it messes with her wiring and she starts repeating, “I thought we were friends, I thought we were friends” ? That’s what I imagine synthetic turf is saying when I stab it with my accusations of being a pseudo green product. Like my friend Owen Dell would say, it’s kind of like organic heroin, organic or not it is still fundamentally a bad idea.

I’ll start with the deceptively simple argument that my primary distrust of synthetic turf is based on the fact that it is not alive. It does not breathe and therefore it offers no oxygen as a byproduct. On a hot day plastic turf smells like, well, plastic.

I have ridden my bicycle past synthetic playing fields on a warm day and the whole neighborhood reeks of melting off-gassing plastic. Not an enjoyable smell. It certainly is not aromatherapy. Again because the stuff is not living and breathing, the cooling effect is absent and thus the phenomenon known as the heat island effect is increased. The ‘Heat island’ refers to urban air and surface temperatures that are higher than those of nearby rural areas.

The images below comparing air, water, bermudagrass, sand, asphalt, and synthetic turf surface temperatures illustrate how hot a synthetic field can reach during a warm day.

Synthetic Turf copy.jpg

Guinea Kids

Synthetic turf often includes crumbled automobile tires to mimic the look and feel of soil. Cool, a new way to recycle tires? The problem is that this soil is dead and, in addition, during rain it leaches chemicals such as cadmium. This leachate is considered toxic runoff. Where does it go? Straight into our rivers, creeks and oceans. Our kids are now expected to play on a low level toxic surface. During strenuous activities they breathe in these toxic off gasses. Because plastic is not an inert substance, it both leaches and off-gasses pieces of itself. Plastics are known to contain xenoestrogens (zeno estrogens) that are endocrine disruptors. Exposure to xenoestrogens, which are found in pesticides, plastics and other industrial chemicals has been linked to breast and ovarian cancers in women and to decreased testosterone levels and prostate cancer in men. The damaging effects have been found in birds, fish, reptiles, rodents and humans. Exposure to even small amounts of environmental endocrine disruptors concern scientists because hormones such as estrogen act in the body at very low levels measured in parts per billion. This endocrine disruptor, xenoestrogen, can wreak havoc with the puberty cycle in the human body. With synthetic turf, there is direct and close contact with the lungs and skin of the growing bodies of children. This would not seem to me to be a great combination. When will we know if there is a detrimental effect on human health from synthetic turf? Unfortunately the jury is out and won’t report back for years to come. Just call our kids guinea kids.

Soil Food Web Deprived of Oxygen

Synthetic turf lawns are one more non-porous surface that disallows rain to soak into the soil. This causes some serious drainage problems. Because of the toxic runoff and drainage issues, this is a product that is not healthy for the watershed.  I interviewed a worm regarding this product and it was none too happy about it to say the least. The soil food web, the vast ‘web’ of life in the soil beneath our feet is under extreme duress under synthetic turf, primarily because this soil is deprived of oxygen. No oxygen, no life. Much of the current product being installed today in playing fields is made from virgin plastic, a petroleum product that adds to global warming in its manufacture.

Our Children’s Trust

Our children trust that we are providing them with a safe place to play. Our challenge is to live up to that trust amidst all of the marketing hoopla about synthetic turf. It is easy to be fooled by the alluring language of this supposed ‘green’ product.

Ken Foster


About Ken

In 1967, 10-year-old Ken Foster read The Secret Garden by Frances Burnett. It took him a whole summer to read, but it inspired him to see gardening as a celebration of our coexistence with nature. In 1985, he took on an apprenticeship at the UC Santa Cruz Farm and Garden, and there he discovered his passion. He founded Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping in 1988, and has dedicated his life to caring for the environment and community through sustainable landscaping. He also teaches a permaculture class at Cabrillo College. When he’s not busy with designing, installing, and maintaining ecological landscapes, Ken can be found riding his bike around town, or making mandalas out of salvaged herbs that would otherwise have been sent to the landfill.


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  • Rachel says:

    My son’s school just put in artificial turf on the playground a few weeks ago. Last week, he was playing, said his back was itchy, and within moments, he couldn’t breathe, and went into anaphylactic shock. We had no idea what caused it. The ambulance came, and he was okay, so he came home, had dinner, and was totally fine.

    The next day, at the same time of day, he was playing on the artificial turf, and it happened AGAIN. He wasn’t eating the same foods, and had been totally fine in between. The turf/playground is the only thing in common in both situations. We are getting him allergy tested this week, to see what he could be allergic to, but we think it’s the chemicals coming off the turf in the hot Arizona sun.

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