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

20 Comments

  • That is scary stuff, Ken! Thanks for the scoop. If I hear anyone talking about getting synthetic turf, I will lay this on them.

  • I agree with Jessi. Thanks for the tip. Great article!

  • It’s hilarious when the synthetic turf marketers post their spammy comments without even reading the article 😉

  • Harold, did you even read the article?

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you. Sent this to my soccer playing daughter! Thumbs up for native sod!

  • Kathy says:

    This is great! Just add tire crumb to the plastic and you have the smell of burning tires and hot plastic. mmmmmmmm
    Check our http://www.synturf.org for more on the real deal with artificial turf

  • I remember my days of playing football on synthetic turf back at Round Rock High School. We had our practice field which was grass, but when game time came we played on the synthetic turf with the rubber grains. The temp difference was big. I also had skin rashes from the synthetic turf. There is no way I would ever install synthetic turf at my house and make my children play on it. I think good old sod will be fine for me and my 3 boys.

  • I really enjoyed reading the post. That is just crazy. Real turf is the way to go!

  • Check out the Santa Cruz Sentinel front page! Soccer coaches pushing for the turf…There’s a meeting tonight! I so wish I was there! Someone’s got to speak up for the kids!

  • Aronjon says:

    Thanks for the heads up on this, I didn’t realize what it was actually made out of. Jen brings up a good point about the
    chemicals on the grass… how about a dirt field?

  • You had some major points in the article above. The only thing is it depends on where you obtain your artificial grass from. Many companies do not provide the eco-friendliness or quality that many other turf companies provide. For example, Synthetic Grass Warehouse http://www.syntheticgrasswarehouse.com/ provides quality and eco-friendly turf. The advancements and improvements on their turf have the natural feel and look of real grass. More importantly, their infill technology has led to decrease the temperature of the grass. The infill is not made up of chewed up tires like other artificial grass. The color is actually green, which helps decrease the amount of heat emitted from the sunlight. You can find a lot more information on that website, hope this information helps.

  • Hello, thank you for the valuable suggestions . its really informative.

  • Where lawns are concerned, both cost and consciousness run high these days. And that’s just one thing that we consider for putting up synthetic turf. Thanks for sharing your ideas that helped me acquire new knowledge regarding synthetic turf.

  • Luis N says:

    This was a really good article. I am for and against this. First of all because in one way we are running low on our resources, and personally feel that we need to conserve as much as possible. At the same time the toxins and lack of environmental process that this product voids well, is not ok. But I do feel that the faux grasses may be getting better with all that stuff. I Personally feel that If I use a faux grass I will use 95% real sod, and about 5% faux. This would just be for aesthetics reasons and easy maintenance. Overall I do feel that we as humans need to focus on environmental responsibility and focus on using less.

  • Wow, I had no idea synthetic turf temperatures could get so high. Hopefully they will come out with more natural and environmentally friendly artificial grass materials.

  • Anya says:

    Money isn’t everything.

  • It’s great that you are bringing such facts to our attention. I had already heard of this stuff being toxic, but now I’m convinced.Thanks!

  • I have only recently started reading your blog, but am glad to have found it; it’s highly informative and very interesting, so please keep up the good work!

  • Definitely this blog is very informative and neatly designed. Thanks for sharing with us.

  • 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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