Fake Grass Causing Real Problems for Athletes and the Environment

Injury on Artificial Turf
Another Super Bowl has come and gone, another 1.25 billion chicken wings have been consumed, and somewhere out there another football player is packing for Disneyland. With all the action and excitement of Super Bowl Sunday, one element of the big day was surely overlooked to everyone but the most extreme of turfgrass nerds. Did anyone stop for a moment and contemplate the playing field? Did anyone ponder as they were guzzling down their beer about the complexity of a professional sports turf? As the guacamole dip was being passed around, did you pause to explain to your friends and family about the intricate design and function of the artificial turf in Lucas Oil Stadium? Probably not. Let’s face it; talking about grass and turf just isn’t that exciting. Hence the saying, “fun as watching grass grow.”

Artificial Turf vs. Natural Grass: The Ongoing Debate

So with my comments quietly kept to myself, I sat back and enjoyed the game. One of the first things I noticed was the type of playing surface being used in the Lucas Oil Stadium. Like many other professional sports stadiums, the Lucas Oil Stadium has opted for artificial grass. This got me thinking about the ongoing debate in the sports world about the use of artificial turf, and the impact it has on not only the players, but the environment as well. What’s the deal with artificial turf anyway? Understandably, the main attraction is convenience. It’s basically maintenance free, uses no water and stays completely uninform year-round. At first, these sound like great attributes. Who wouldn’t want to use artificial turf? But dig a little deeper and you’ll soon see that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually isn’t.

Artificial Turf and Sports Injuries

Ever since artificial turf was introduced in the 1960’s, it’s been the subject of controversy. The biggest complaint against it comes from the players themselves. Increased injuries such as sprained ankles, concussions, turf burns, and an injury known as “turf toe” are common. Knee injuries are particularly more common on artificial turf than on natural grass, and players often report greater muscle strain. The culprit? Artificial turf has a higher coefficient of friction, meaning that players are more likely to “stick” to the surface instead of sliding naturally across it. How well a playing field absorbs shock is another factor in sports related injuries. As long as the ground isn’t frozen, natural grass turf can absorb shock better than artificial turf. Overheating is also a health concern for athletes playing on an artificial turf since temperatures can be over 15 degrees hotter on fake turf than natural grass. Even with the development of newer, more life-like materials, artificial turf will never completely have the same feel as real grass.

The Transition Back to Natural Grass

It’s no wonder that many sports stadiums are making the transition back to natural grass. After years of experimenting, the MLB has phased out its use of fake grass, and only two stadiums continue to use it. Soccer fields throughout the world have seen the error of their ways after installing artificial turf extensively in the 80’s and 90’s, and have replaced many of their artificial turfs with natural grass once again. Natural grass still remains the most popular surfaces in the NFL. In a 2010 survey of NFL players , 69.4% said they prefer to play on a grass field as opposed to artificial turf, and 89% of the players agreed that artificial turf caused more soreness and fatigue than grass.

The Environmental Impacts of Artificial Turf

There are also concerns over the environmental impacts of artificial turf. Many artificial turfs, especially older models, are made with rubber from recycled tires. These materials contain lead, heavy metals, and carcinogens which environmentalist claim can leech into the water table or pose health concerns for young children. Newer artificial fields are made from polyethylene and polypropylene plastics which require large inputs of energy to produce and need to be replaced every five to ten years. Other issues include how artificial turfs impact the natural systems around them. Organic debris needs to be regularly removed and natural decomposition is hindered. Wildlife habitat is also destroyed as artificial turf does not support birds, animals, or insects.

Save H2O by Using Low-Water Use Grasses, Rainwater Harvesting

You might be asking at this point: what about all the water that artificial turf saves? While it’s true that the allure of saving water is a common, (and responsible) reason why many people turn to fake grass, it’s important to realize that there are many alternative grass species that require a very small amount of water to grow and thrive. Species such as Buffalograss, Bermudagrass, and Zoysiagrass are becoming more and more popular for their extremely low water use. By implementing these grass seeds along with practices like rainwater harvesting, we can still achieve the noble goal of water reduction without resorting to fake grass and the negative impacts of artificial turf.

No matter how hard the artificial turf industry tries to copy the attributes of natural grass seed, they will never be able to replicate what Mother Nature has given us. Whether it’s concern over sports injuries or concern for the environment, the conclusion is simple and can be applied to most things in life: real beats fake any day. Aspen Photo / Shutterstock.com