Grounds Management, Maintenance and Operations, Sustainability/Business Continuity

Synthetic Turf vs. Grass: Which Is Better for Your Athletic Fields?

As we move into spring, it’s time for America’s pastime: baseball. But the question facilities managers need to answer isn’t as American as apple pie; it’s whether fields should be natural grass or synthetic turf. Not only that, but football fields at high schools, colleges, and professionals are also getting a break after a long football season, and facilities managers need to find out whether now is the time for such a change. Therefore, the debate on whether synthetic turf or natural grass is best for players and the facilities they play at continues.

History of Synthetic Turf

While synthetic turf has been around since the 1960s, it gained popularity in professional sports arenas in the 1970s and 1980s, when it consisted of hard mats of nylon grass. Athletes complained it was harder than grass and caused injuries, so to solve those issues, newer artificial turf used infill material to make fields softer with plastic grass.

Advantages of Synthetic Turf

The advantages of synthetic turf include:

  • Conserves water and maintenance: Switching from real grass to synthetic turf saves 2,200 gallons of water each year per square meter of synthetic turf, according to General Sports Surfaces.
  • Lead-safe for children: The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission ruled that levels of lead in synthetic turf are safe for children but recommended that future products not include lead.
  • Cheaper maintenance: Synthetic Turf Council reports that “according to Cory Jenner, a landscape architecture professional in Syracuse, N.Y., the cost of installing and maintaining a synthetic turf sports field over a 20-year period (including one replacement field) is over three times less expensive per event than the cost of a grass field over the same period of time.”
  • Maximizes land: Synthetic turfs are great for urban environments, where there is little land available for recreational fields. According to General Sports Surfaces, natural grass playing fields can only be used for 24 hours a week. Synthetic turf is also great for places affected by drought.
  • Great year-round: Unlike real grass, synthetic turf does not require re-leveling and extra maintenance after winter to bring it back to normal condition.
  • Better for players: While grass fields usually have bumps and uneven places, synthetic turf creates totally flat fields, and the perpetually short grass makes balls travel faster.

Stadiums and Players in Favor of Synthetic Turf

Fourteen of the 30 National Football League (NFL) stadiums use a version of synthetic grass, according to AZCentral, which notes that a textured and twisted monofilament turf is used in Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles. According to WXIX, Joe Burrow, a Cincinnati Bengals player, says he prefers turf and that it improves the field’s quality. Super Bowl 57, played in February 2023, had a natural grass field at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, and it proved very slippery for players.

Moreover, Thones Baseball reports that 11 Major League Baseball (MLB) stadiums have synthetic turf after a brief upward trend.

As for the nonprofessionals, FOX 13 News reports that synthetic turf fans include the Buddy Baseball organization, which includes boys and girls with special needs who have a hard time playing baseball on dirt fields, as  synthetic fields provide a smooth and flat surface.

Disadvantages of Synthetic Turf

  • Dangerous chemicals: According to the National Institute of Medicine, a Yale University study showed there are at least 306 different chemical agents in the crumb rubber infill with up to 197 carcinogenic characteristics. 
  • Not recyclable: Materials of synthetic turf are bound together and could be recycled only if they’re separated and cleaned, according to Outlook Gardens.
  • Drainage: There were instances in which schools had issues with drainage of artificial turf fields, according to Delaware Riverkeeper. Grass is able to pull water out of the soil and release it into the air, and it filters pollution to protect the water quality of nearby waterways, but artificial turfs don’t have those equalities.
  • Overheating: Artificial grass can reach greater temperatures than grass under the same weather conditions, according to the University of Plymouth.
  • Injuries: There are almost three times as many posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) tears on turf than on grass, the rate of ankle fractures is six times as high, and more serious concussions are associated with turf than grass, according to the National Center for Health Research.
  • No benefit to living creatures: Insects, solitary bees, and worms cannot get to the soil, according to an article in The Guardian.

Stadiums and Players Against Synthetic Turf

According to WBAY-TV, the NFL Association and several football players spoke out against synthetic turf, claiming it leads to more noncontact injuries due to the softness of the material. Specifically, Green Bay Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari said he believes there would be fewer noncontact injuries if the NFL no longer used turf.

Moreover, according to Insider, there was backlash against synthetic turf just 1 year ago, when Odell Beckham, Jr., became injured after getting his foot stuck in the turf during Super Bowl LVI in February 2022. The article also states that 90% of NFL players prefer playing on natural grass.

As for the nonprofessionals, Boston became the largest municipality to order no new artificial turf in city parks, disagreeing with studies showing that the chemicals are not harmful to children. The Guardian reports that all artificial turf is made with “toxic PFAS compounds and some is still produced with ground-up tires that can contain heavy metals, benzene, VOCs and other carcinogens that can present a health threat.” Other municipalities in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California’s Bay Area also ban synthetic turf.

Making a Decision

The cost of converting from synthetic turf to real grass or vice versa is another important factor to consider before making a decision, but ultimately, facilities managers need to meet with athletic team staff, school staff, and community members to weigh all of the above to determine what is best for their facility.

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