Thursday, December 02, 2010

Synthetic Turf Isn't A Sin But It Isn't Beneficial Either

With more emphasis being placed on drought-tolerant plants, stormwater pollution, and expensive water bills, an estimated area of over 60 million square feet of synthetic turf was installed in the United States last year. That means popularity of 'fake grass' has increased 20% since 2006. This latest trend in hopeful water conservation has world-wide corporations looking for eco-friendly applications for their products and providing environmental research, critical to getting green products certified and acceptable to consumers.

This month, BASF, the world's leading chemical corporation, has proudly released their eighteen month study on synthetic turf's economic and environmental impacts versus traditional natural grass fields. The innovation giant's comprehensive research used eleven "eco-efficiency" categories such as energy, air, water, carbon emissions, and pollution. It is the first study verified by the highly regarded non-profit NSF International organization.

The study's comparisons between synthetic turf and natural grass are being touted as great news for the global environment, and very well may be, but we have to realize that the study is based on athletic fields, not residential lawns or entire developments. As with all environmental issues, there are implications in trying to recreate Mother Nature's earthly balance with Stepford Wives solutions.

The conundrum: Is synthetic turf better for the earth than natural grass?

The answer: Maybe in some applications but it depends on the use, amount, and maintenance.

Funny, but that's the exact answer to having an environmentally friendly landscape.

The history of synthetic turf started in the 50's and 60's with advancements made in carpet manufacturing. In 1966 AstroTurf® appeared on the market. Since then innovative processes have created a more "natural" turf product reducing previous abrasive and unattractive qualities for consumers. Now that it's much more attractive, more durable, it's becoming more acceptable in residential communities. But should it?

The Synthetic Turf Council has accumulated the positive research on artificial turf on its website. There is no doubt that with the increased popularity of worldwide sports, using natural turfgrasses in stadiums and sports arenas can be expensive. Higher maintenance of natural turf fields needed to achieve superior sport conditions does affect water quantity and water quality, not to mention excessive labor, time, weather hazards, chemicals, and budgets of academic sports teams and corporations.

The NSF International confirms BASF"s environmental study that synthetic grass for athletic fields can be less costly to maintain after its installation. But what enviromental impact does synthetic turf have before it becomes an athletic field? What resources does it take to make synthetic turf? How long will it last vs natural turfgrass? How will synthetic turf be disposed of when its not longer usuable?

Synthetic turf is derived from nylon and polypropylene, and is created by a tufting machine similar to technology used in carpet manufacturing. Binding for the bottom of the turf can be made out of any material used for carpet backing.

Watch a video on how artificial turf is made.

I couldn't find any studies researching the amount of energy and water that it takes to make an entire field of synthetic turf, but there are studies showing how much water is needed to make plastic bottles. If it takes more than five liters of water to make a plastic bottle that holds one liter of water, what should we assume it takes to make nearly 60,000 feet of a nylon football field?

One of the downsides of synthetic turf is the surface temperatures during the summertime. This University of Florida video shows that varying temperatures of 155 degrees to 100 degrees between natural grass, synthetic turf, asphalt and cement. Can you guess which one was the highest? The synthetic turf was highest at 155 degrees. The lowest was the natural grass temperature at 100 degrees. The heat index combined with green building could pose an issue with synthetic turf as vendors warn that they do not warranty any synthetic turf installed against reflective windows. With global warming and climate change concerns in the news, how could the summer temperature of millions of acres of artificial turf add to the heated debate?

After installation, synthetic turf customers are told to water down their lawn if it gets hot. That may not be often in Nebraska or Wisconsin, but in Florida that hot turf could happen every day ten or more months out of the year. How would you irrigate or clean an entire yard of artificial turf? With a water hose? Washing down 3,000 to 5,000 feet of nylon is quite a household chore, nevermind an extreme amount of water. I can't imagine too many customers keeping their irrigation systems after installing synthetic turf to water down the hot nylon surface daily or even being allowed to water it at all with current water restrictions? Mowing the lawn doesn't sound that bad looking at the alternative maintenance required for synthetic turf.

What is wrong with turfgrass anyway? It is a natural habitat for butterflies and skippers, moderates soil temperatures, and helps to reduce evaporation and runoff. Who is to blame for the massive use of water, chemicals, and maintenance for green acres of perfection? Certainly not the grass but our desire for perfect, no maintenance lawns. It's human behavior that is at fault.

The IMFA Foundation provides more sustainable benefits from turfgrass:
  • Provides a natural, comfortable and safe setting for outdoor recreation.
  • Releases oxygen and cools the air.
  • Controls pollution and reduces soil erosion.
  • Purifies our water supply by reducing stormwater runoff and controlling erosion from rain and wind.
  • Can enhance curb appeal, adding as much as 15 percent to the value of a home, when well-maintained.
  • Traps and removes dust and dirt from the air.
  • Uses water very efficiently.
  • Acts as a natural filter, reducing pollution by purifying the water passing through its root zone.
  • On a hot summer day, lawns will be 30°F (-2°C) cooler than asphalt and 14°F (10°C) cooler than bare soil.
  • The cooling effect of irrigated turf reduces the amount of fuel burned to provide the electricity to power air conditioners.
  • A healthy lawn absorbs rainfall six times more effectively than a wheat field and four times better than a hay field.
  • A sodded lawn will absorb greater amounts of rain than a seeded lawn, even after three years of growth.
Last month, I designed a renovation of a twenty year old, tired landscape. It included a cottage and border garden, terraces, and a new front lawn of zoysiagrass. It looks beautiful and will be low maintenance and water conserving because of the correct plants and overhauled water-efficient irrigation system. Costs were very reasonable. Within 15 minutes of unloading the flowers and ornamental shrubs, there were dozens of butterflies and skippers eagerly flitting from plant to plant around the yard. They seemed to come from nowhere. Each time I visit the house, the finished landscape always has butterflies floating around the flowers. After establishment, the landscape will last for years with little need of supplemental water, weekly mowings, or chemical use. There will be no need to ever look for a recycling plant or landfill to haul any of the plants or grass away if they want to change it.

At the same time as I was designing and installing my client's landscape, literally around the corner was a home having artificial turf installed. I have been by it many times, and have yet to see any beneficial life in the landscape. It looks green alright, but it looks fake. The sparkling synthetic turf glistens in the sun, and I'm sure the temperatures around the yard will be fine as we go into winter, but I'll be interested in seeing what it feels like with the temperatures in the heat of summer. The synthetic turf lawn will stay the same, no seasonal changes, always Stepford green. Word on the street is that it cost over $15,000. Of course, synthetic turf is not permanent, and will need routine maintenance like pulling the weeds out and cleaning, eventually needing replaced within ten years. That will come with an additional cost of hauling it away to a recycling plant or landfill. I wonder if this resident understood the complications of recycling 5,000 square feet of old, worn-out synthetic turf?

So while an argument can be made that synthetic turf is a smart choice for a company's bottom line and for the manufacturing corporations, there is no environmental benefit to the residential owner installing a synthetic turf except possibly to his lifestyle of boasting a perfectly green lawn all year round. Installing synthetic turf won't benefit the earth at all, unlike natural grass. It is an short-term artificial solution for a culture striving for instant perfection but without having responsibility of stewardship. It's a behavioral problem that only has its own long term implications when people stop taking care of their artificial turf. I agree with Todd Layt that man-made turf is an alternative to cement, not natural grass. There's nothing wrong with turfgrass if it's taken care of with best management practices. Let's use the eco-friendly grass that God gave us, but use it wisely and maintain it properly.

If not, what's next? Synthetic flowers?

More reading:

12/10/2011 - Further comments made by any artificial turf companies for the purpose of promoting their product and company will not be posted.  If you have a legitimate comment - go for it.
~ Teresa Watkins


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  5. Anonymous7:58 AM

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