Why this turf type is becoming so popular


Synthetic turf is a smart solution for playing fields that have become unsafe and unsightly from overuse or severe climatic conditions. It’s hard for a grass field to remain lush and resilient if used more than three to four days a week, or in the rain, or during the months when grass doesn’t grow. This fact, coupled with an escalating need for durable fields that accommodate multiple sports teams and activities, the high cost of maintaining a grass sports field, and the need to conserve water, have prompted a rising number of schools and parks to turn to synthetic turf to meet their program needs.

Today’s synthetic turf is designed to simulate the experience of practicing and playing on the best grass fields. Demand has grown to the point where more than 7,000 synthetic turf fields are currently being used in North America by a growing number of high school and collegiate athletes playing and practicing football, soccer, hockey, baseball, rugby, lacrosse and many other sports About half of all NFL teams currently play their games on synthetic turf and, since 2003, over 70 FIFA U-17 and U-20 World Cup matches have been played on synthetic turf soccer fields.

Benefiting the environment

A heightened sense of environmental awareness has prompted growing interest in synthetic turf’s ability to conserve billions of gallons of water each year. Depending on the region of the country, one full-size synthetic turf sports field can save 500,000 to 1 million gallons of water each year. During 2011, about 5 billion gallons of water were conserved through its use. According to the EPA, the average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water a day. Therefore, a savings of five billion gallons of water equates to the annual water usage of nearly 35,000 average American families of four. For a multiuse field in Texas, where there is little rain, the water savings is much greater. School officials with the El Paso Independent School District stated that their 10 synthetic turf sports fields save more than 80 million gallons of water every year, or 8 million gallons of water per field.

Water conservation isn’t the only benefit. Most of the current synthetic turf sports fields feature crumb rubber infill recycled from used tires, keeping more than 105 million used tires out of landfills. The estimated amount of synthetic turf currently installed has also eliminated the need for nearly 1 billion pounds of pesticides and fertilizers.

According to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, polluted stormwater runoff is the number one cause of water pollution in the state, with common examples including overfertilizing lawns and excessive pesticide use. The EPA has identified runoff of toxic pesticides and fertilizers as a principal cause of water pollution; approximately 375,000 acres of lakes, 1,900 miles of rivers and streams and 550 square miles of estuaries in Florida are known to be impaired by nutrient pollution, a primary source of which is excess fertilizer.

The football field at Van Horn High School, Independence, Mo.

In addition, synthetic turf helps reduce noxious emissions. According to the EPA, “lawn mowers emit high levels of carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas, as well as hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides that contribute to the formation of ground level ozone, a noxious pollutant that impairs lung function, inhibits plant growth, and is a key ingredient of smog.” The EPA also reports that a push mower emits as much pollution in one hour as 11 cars, and a riding mower emits as much as 34 cars.

In 2010, the BASF Corporation conducted an Eco-Efficiency Analysis that compared synthetic turf athletic fields with professionally installed and maintained grass alternatives. They found that synthetic turf can lower consumption of energy, raw materials and solid waste generation, depending on field usage, and that the average life cycle costs over 20 years of a natural grass field are 15 percent higher than the synthetic turf alternatives. Using synthetic turf can also help environmentally conscientious builders and specifiers with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) project certification from the U.S. Green Building Council in the areas of water efficient landscaping, recycled content, rapidly renewable material and innovation in design.

Increasing playing time & safety

Synthetic turf can be utilized around 3,000 hours per year with no “rest” required. Rainouts may be eliminated, since synthetic turf is permeable and quickly drains excess water off the field. This creates increased practice and play time, as well as the flexibility to use an athletic field for other events.

Made with resilient materials for safety, synthetic turf sports fields provide a uniform and consistent playing surface. Traction, rotation and slip resistance, surface abrasion and stability meet the rigorous requirements of the most respected sports leagues and federations. Some of the published studies of the comparative safety of synthetic turf include:

<0x2022> A 2004 NCAA study among schools nationwide comparing injury rates between natural and synthetic turf; the injury rate during practice was 4.4 percent on natural turf, and 3.5 percent on synthetic turf.

<0x2022> An analysis by FIFA’s Medical Assessment and Research Centre of the incidence and severity of injuries sustained on grass and synthetic turf during two FIFA U-17 World Championships. According to FIFA, “The research showed that there was very little difference in the incidence, nature and causes of injuries observed during games played on artificial turf compared with those played on grass.”

<0x2022> In 2010, three long-term studies of acute injuries on synthetic turf and grass published by researchers from Norway and Sweden. The studies examined the type, location and severity of injuries sustained by hundreds of players during thousands of hours of matches and training over a four to five-year period. Many types of acute injuries to men and women soccer players, particularly knee injury, ankle sprain, muscle strains, concussions, MCL tears and fractures were evaluated. The researchers concluded that the injury risk of playing on artificial turf is no greater than playing on natural grass. These studies and many more, including the FIFA comparative results of its research, are posted on the Synthetic Turf Council’s website (www.syntheticturfcouncil.org) under Research & Latest Thinking.

Ridgeland High’s synthetic turf field.

Enhancing cost effectiveness

According to Cory Jenner, a landscape architect with Syracuse, N.Y.-based Appel Osborne, the cost of installing and maintaining a synthetic turf sports field over a 20-year period (including one replacement field) is more than three times less expensive per event than the cost of a grass field over the same period of time. This is because many more events can be held on a synthetic turf sports field.

This cost per event advantage is validated by other authorities and field owners. Because synthetic turf can withstand so much wear and tear, many schools also rent their fields to local sports teams and organizations to bring in extra funding. At Cincinnati’s Turpin High School, the field is rented 80 percent of the evenings between January and October, raising $40,000 a year for the last few years from rental fees.

“The synthetic field completely revolutionized our sports program,” noted Rob Coleman, athletic director, Whittier College, California. “We now have a multidimensional facility with activities scheduled year-round, nearly around the clock. Along with football, Newman Field now hosts an incredible range of activities – intramural sports; lacrosse sports; lacrosse playoffs; soccer leagues; local high school events such as sports camps, cheerleading competitions and much more.”

Promoting wellness

Increasing childhood fitness is an important objective of the “Let’s Move!” program championed by first lady Michelle Obama, the NFL’s “Play 60” campaign and many other efforts. Yet in reporting that about 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese, the Centers for Disease Control notes that the lack of safe, appealing places for kids to play or be active is a major problem in many communities. A rapidly growing solution is synthetic turf. Just ask Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington, D.C., which previously had an asphalt playground that limited the ability of students to play team sports. In October 2011, the Synthetic Turf Council, through the generosity of its members, donated a new 13,200-square-foot synthetic turf field that is now being used by students year-round. “Although Stuart-Hobson has an incredible athletic program, we’ve lacked outside practice fields for our players,” said Principal Dawn Clemens. “This new synthetic turf field is helping all of our students increase their physical activity levels.”

Making recreation for the disabled as inclusive as possible is also a growing priority. “Inclusive recreation is one of the fastest growing needs in more and more parks and recreation agencies across the United States,” said Elizabeth Kessler, 2009-2010 National Recreation and Park Association president, during the 11th annual National Institute on Recreation Inclusion conference in November 2010. Since wheelchairs roll easily and crutches won’t sink into playing surfaces, synthetic turf fields are creating more recreation opportunities, like those used by Miracle Leagues nationwide to help youth with physical disabilities play baseball.

In conclusion, synthetic turf has become so popular because it is needed, especially in places where grass can’t easily grow or be maintained. Youth, entire communities and the environment are benefiting as a result of all it has to offer, as properly maintained sports fields allow for limitless hours of safe play. Synthetic turf is also more and more the preferred choice for residential, commercial and municipal landscapes because of its eco-benefits, particularly in drought-stricken areas of the country.

Rick Doyle is president of the Synthetic Turf Council.