In addition to the health & safety concerns for athletes, synthetic turf raises environmental concerns:
- Both the grass and the infill are made from toxic products and will wind up in landfills when the fields need to be refurbished (10–12 years); they are not biodegradable, so they will continue to leach toxins into the environment for centuries;
- The infill material releases harmful gases and particles that are carried from the field in air and water, causing harm to plants, animals, and to humans that do not use the field themselves;
- Chemicals used to make the plastic turf resistant to flame are themselves highly toxic; and
- Lifecycle analysis shows that synthetic turf fields produce significant global warming emissions, while natural turf actually absorbs small amounts of CO2.
- Natural grass acts as habitat for many living things, including the worms that are important to maintaining soil structure;
Synthetic turf is sometimes touted as a plus for the environment, claiming that it doesn’t require irrigation, synthetic fertilizers, or toxic pesticides. These claims are valid in some situations, particularly arid climates or in comparison to poorly-managed native fields.
Irrigation – Much of the water used to irrigate natural grass is not needed and is due to human error or miscalculation or mismanagement. Water use can be reduced substantially by watering deeply and infrequently to promote deeper rooting, by using drought-resistant varieties, and by allowing turf to become dormant if there is a drought. In addition, recycled ‘gray water’ can be used for irrigation. If synthetic turf fields are used in hot weather, they have to be sprinkled to reduce the air and surface temperature.
Chemicals – A well-managed natural turf field should require little or no fertilizer or pesticides — and a synthetic turf field is treated with flame retardant and may require periodic treatment to kill bacteria, algae, and fungus that develop because there is no natural ecosystem.
Depending on construction, natural turf can actually provide significant environmental benefits, including the following:
- Water – Dense above ground turf biomass traps and holds water which reduces excess runoff and allows more water to infiltrate into the soil, and the extensive root system filters water and enhances groundwater quality.
- Air – Natural turf acts as a trap for particulate matter to improve air quality.
- Soil – Natural turf ecosystems support abundant earthworm populations, which aerate the soil & increase soil water capacity; they also support large populations of beneficial microbes. As plant tissue dies, it is incorporated into the root zone, improving soil structure and providing nutrients for the grass.
- Heat – Natural turf reduces ambient heat through the cooling process of transpiration.
- Global Warming – Natural turf reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide and releases oxygen as the grass plants produce their own food through photosynthesis.
- What Is Synthetic Turf?
- What Do Athletes Think?
- Health & Safety Concerns
- Turf Burns – First Aid & Treatment
- Antibiotic-Resistant Infections – MRSA
- Environmental Pros & Cons
- Maintenance & Upkeep
- Cost – Natural Turf v. Synthetic
- Play It Safe – Recommendations for Athletes, Parents, and Institutions
- Sources & Links for More Information
- Open Letter to Anyone Considering Synthetic Turf
These pages on Synthetic Turf are based on research and analysis completed in May 2015 by Kendall Garden [Lehigh ’16] and Peter Crownfield. Contact us by email.
[updated 6 July 2016]