Turf Wars: Natural Grass Is Greener Than Synthetic Turf

Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks runs the ball against the defense of Josh Wilson #26 of the Washington Redskins during the NFC Wild Card Playoff Game at FedExField on Jan. 6. (Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images).

As clichéd as it sounds, the grass isn't always greener on the other side when you're debating between grass and artificial turf on playing fields. After the NFC wild card playoff game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Redskins, the condition of the grass at FedEx Field was described as "horrible." Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III and Seattle defensive end Chris Clemons left the game with knee injuries.

Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson likened the condition of the grass on that day to working in a "sweat shop." In a widely circulated video he shot on his phone, the fullback documented grass that looked like it had seen better days. In some parts it really did look like painted dirt. "This is terrible," Robinson is heard saying over and over as he scratches at the grass with his shoe before the game.

Is synthetic turf safer?

The first National Football League stadium to adopt artificial turf was Franklin Field in 1969, the stadium of the University of Pennsylvania and former home of the Philadelphia Eagles. Since then many stadiums have made the switch from grass to turf and back again. Stadiums have switched playing surfaces almost as often as sports stars change wives.

Today, 21 of the NFL's 32 teams either play or practice on FieldTurf, which is made of polyethylene fibers over a padding of sand and rubber. A recent study found NFL leg injuries, in particular anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, were more common on FieldTurf than on grass.

The study, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, stopped short of pointing the finger at FieldTurf and called for more research on injury rates on grass vs. turf.

Darren Gill, vice president of global marketing at FieldTurf, shared with me a study the company funded at Montana State University that found that in many cases FieldTurf was slightly safer than natural grass at the collegiate football level. Of a total of 2,253 injuries the study documented, 46.6 percent occurred on FieldTurf versus 50.5 percent on natural grass.

So let's call it a draw. When playing contact sports, athletes are bound to get hurt.

But is synthetic grass better for the environment?

According to Gill, a typical natural grass field requires 1 million gallons of water and 10,000 pounds of pesticides per year. He points out that a FieldTurf field requires none of that. In addition, he says there are 20,000 recycled tires used in a FieldTurf field that otherwise would have gone to a landfill.

But not everyone agrees. "Those numbers seem high; there are too many variables," says Dr. Keith Karnok, professor of crop and soil sciences at the University of Georgia. "It depends on where you live, what kind of grass we're talking about, and if it is a newer or older field. Newer fields have higher requirements, but a stabilized, good field could require almost zero pesticides," he adds.

Karnok, who has authored more than 250 publications related to turfgrass sciences, concedes that there is a place for both natural and synthetic fields.

Yes, grass does take a lot of water and fertilizer to maintain, but when compared to synthetic turf, it looks down-right environmental. Consider that grass sequesters carbon and releases oxygen. A synthetic turf field does not.

The typical lifespan of a synthetic field is eight to 10 years. "We do have several FieldTurf fields that are in their 13th and 14th years of consecutive use," says Gill. Which is a testament to how far the technology has come in recent years. But when you consider the cost of disposal of a synthetic fiber over grass that can easily be composted, grass wins again.

Artificial turf is also prone to heating up. In 2002, researchers at Brigham Young University reported that the surface temperature of a synthetic football field on campus was 37 degrees F higher than asphalt, and 86.5 degrees higher than natural turf. Those really are "sweat shop" conditions. How do you cool a synthetic field that reaches a dangerous 174 degrees? You irrigate it, of course. And even then the temperature change is short-lived and starts to rebound after 20 minutes.

MRSA, a virulent strain of drug-resistant staph bacteria, has in recent years jumped from hospitals to the general population. It is common among football players, who contract it through turf burns. The blood, sweat and occasional tears that accompany a sport like football can be absorbed by the soil. Those same fluids have to be cleaned up with harsh chemical disinfectants on a synthetic field.

Yes, artificial turf has its place, but when you consider that it wastes water and requires regular applications of chemicals (for player safety); it doesn't seem like an environmentally conscious alternative to natural grass.

At least not until science figures out a way to make artificial turf sequester carbon and release oxygen. Until that day comes, grass is the greener choice.

Ramon is the original urban garden blogging male espousing a DIY philosophy to gardening and garden projects. Better known online as MrBrownThumb, he’s been demystifying gardening secrets for average gardeners online since 2005. Besides writing the popular MrBrownThumb garden blog he’s co-founder of @SeedChat on Twitter, the creative director of One Seed Chicago, and founder of the Chicago Seed Library.