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.

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