A Natural Debate

A team of young players charges onto the field, smelling the fresh-cut grass. But this experience may become a distant memory as some communities convert their natural-grass fields to artificial turf. However, there are many advantages to staying with or converting to a grass field.

Grass provides more than good feelings. There are environmental, financial, health and safety advantages, as well as athletes’ preference in playing on natural grass.

Environmental Obligations

With the climate changing and the ongoing movement to be “green,” a grass athletic field should be a major consideration for schools and communities. As people are encouraged to reduce the carbon footprint--or the amount of greenhouse gases produced by humans--sodding a turfgrass field is an excellent way for a sports program to make a positive impact on the environment. On the other hand, artificial turf increases the carbon footprint.

The Water War

Although grass fields naturally require water, artificial turf also needs water to cool the field before and during games. For example, field hockey teams are required to water fields before practices and games. According to an article in The News & Observer in Durham, N.C., Duke University had to water down its field hockey artificial turf even during a drought.

Watering artificial turf may not even make much difference. “With artificial fields, 20 minutes after the application of water it’s back to its original temperature,” says John Marman, regional sales manager for West Coast Turf, a producer of turfgrass.

Although grass needs water to grow, any excess water goes into the water table, while water draining off artificial turf cannot seep into the ground. Instead, it runs off into the wastewater system.

Another issue is the use of reclaimed water, which cannot be used on artificial turf. Large expanses of grass, such as golf courses, parks and sports fields, are growing users of reclaimed water, or wastewater treated to remove impurities. Using reclaimed water for irrigation and allowing it to recharge the water table saves potable water for human consumption. One of the most recent projects using reclaimed water is in Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif., which will eventually be the largest city park in North America.

The first phase includes planting seven acres of Sea Isle 1 turfgrass, which uses less water than Bermuda grass, and can tolerate poor water quality, even the occasional application of brackish water. This variety of grass also requires less mowing.

“It’s a great park and we wanted to use natural turf,” said Ken Smith, master designer of the Great Park project. “It’s cool and it smells good. People like to sit on natural turf.”

Do The Math

If the environmental advantages of natural grass aren’t compelling enough, there is the cost factor. According to the Synthetic Turf Council, artificial turf lasts up to 10 years. After it has outlived its usefulness, it is thrown into landfills. Grass fields can be reseeded or resodded.

Several studies have determined that in both the short- and long-term, artificial fields cost more than grass. A 2005 study by Dr. Brad Fresenburg, a turfgrass specialist at University of Missouri Extension, concluded artificial turf costs more when calculated over a 16-year period, assuming the life of the turf can be stretched. Fresenburg determined the annual average cost of $65,846 for a basic synthetic field and $109,013 for the premium artificial field. The low cost of maintenance is often cited as the reason to install an artificial field. “Don’t let anyone come around and say it’s for cost reasons,” Fresenburg said. Most public agencies spend much less than $25,000 annually maintaining a natural field. Since his original 2005 study, Fresenburg discovered it costs $45,000 to $65,000 to dispose of the old artificial turf, increasing the overall cost of owning an artificial field.

On Healthy Ground

While grass is cleansed by rain and other natural processes to remove bodily fluids left behind after use, groundskeepers must clean artificial turf on a regular basis to achieve the same result.

Why is this important? Studies have found that players on artificial surfaces are more prone to injury from turf burns. As a result, more players are susceptible to infections, such as the potentially fatal Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA, pronounced “mersa”). “The turf burns are the kind of minor skin injury that MRSA can exploit,” Elliot Pellman, medical liaison for the National Football League (NFL), told Bloomberg News in its Dec. 21, 2007 issue.

Grass also can reduce incidents of injury for players. A five-year study of injury rates at eight high schools, published in the October-November issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine, determined there was a higher incidence of skin injuries, muscle strains and spasms on artificial turf. For every 10 games played, athletes incurred 15.2 percent of their injuries as a result of playing on artificial turf, versus 13.9 percent on grass.

A Cooling Effect

While it may sound like a minor point, grass keeps an area cooler. In an urban environment, a heat island can form due to temperature-raising features, such as concrete, brick and artificial grass. Heat islands increase the temperature more than the surrounding rural areas, simply because of the artificial surfaces.

Turf temperature also can have a dramatic effect on the players and spectators. A Brigham Young University study documented temperatures on artificial fields to be upwards of 86.5 F hotter than natural grass fields under identical conditions.

The University of California-Davis experienced how brutal an artificial field’s heat can be during the first game of the 2007 season. On an unseasonably hot day, the temperature in the spectator bleachers hit almost 100 degrees, and the field temperature was 15 degrees higher. According to the Sacramento Bee, 85 spectators sought medical attention at the stadium due to the heat, eight of whom were transported to area hospitals. Natural turf makes playing conditions more tolerable in hot weather.

Picking And Choosing

Sometimes it comes down to which surface athletes prefer to play on. The 2006 survey results of 1,500 NFL players showed that 73 percent prefer to play on natural grass. The most common player comment was, “Make all fields grass to prevent injuries.” The majority of players believe artificial infilled fields contribute to injury, soreness and fatigue, and are more likely to shorten their careers and quality of life after football.

Some sports such as Major League Soccer will allow only turfgrass for official games. Others just like the tradition of grass. “They like their kids to come home with grass stains,” Marman notes. “It doesn’t feel like sports unless it’s on natural grass.”