Turf vs. Grass Fields

The Skydome practice fields were remodeled and turf was installed to help with water conservation Sept. 28. (Photo by Italia Diazbarriga.)

The good ol’ sandlot is a place where vacant land is taken over by amateur athletes. If those players make their way to higher levels of play, they are awarded with nicer fields.

As mankind progresses, more and more elements of life begin to be artificial, including grass.

The typical baseball, football and soccer fields have an outstretched lawn that span for a 100 yards.

This year, the Sports Activity Practice Fields underwent major renovations. Before, the field was a natural grass lawn, and post-renovations it is now a turf field.

NAU project manager Andrew Iacona said the project was initiated as a request from the Student Advisory Committee, and became a partnership between NAU Athletics and Campus Recreation to execute.

There were many factors responsible for the conversion from natural grass to artificial turf, but low maintenance trumps all.

“There is a significant water use savings by switching to artificial turf,” Iacona said. “Similarly, the need for weekly mowing, line painting, fertilization and regular irrigation maintenance is no longer necessary.”

Washington State University conducted a study on soil-based soccer fields. They listed seven steps that require a field to be top quality. The study shows that a bad field is one that is inconsistently watered. Whether in season or not, good fields are watered with 1 to 2 inches of water per week.

The trouble with this is that it is possible for grass to be overwatered. Flagstaff experiences extreme weather elements with snow and rain, creating muddy or frozen conditions. Outdoor facilities in Flagstaff seem to favor artificial turf for this reason only, although there are plenty of other supporting elements.

All sports require some sort of boundary and line markings. Grass fields are constantly being spray painted, and aerosol cans are heavily relied on for this.

In the 1970s, there were nationwide bans on the chemicals in spray cans because of their effect on the ozone layer. The chemical that was specifically banned is called chlorofluorocarbons. Modern day aerosol cans are almost completely free of chlorofluorocarbons. Still, it is possible that aerosols could be harmful to the environment.

Turf fields do not require any type of spray paint. The different colors that are seen are actually individually colored strands that do not require reservicing.

So when looking at the pros and cons, turf seems to take the win in favor of the environment.

Where turf can lose out to natural grass is production. Grass is fertilized, grown and laid. Turf goes through a factorized production process. Many factories have a carbon discharge of some kind, but artificial grass only goes through this process once, while grass constantly needs attention from carbon-emitting equipment.

Iacona said he was unsure about what would be better for the environment.

“Due to the known difficulties of maintaining a grass sports field in our region, between the ongoing maintenance efforts, continual line paint, mowing, fertilization and significant water use, I am going to guess that the artificial turf might be more sustainable,” Iacona said.

Turf reduces carbon emissions due to a lower amount of maintenance required, because fossil fuels are not being used for lawn mowers and trimmers. On the other hand, turf factories probably contributed to the 6,457 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2017, as stated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

That’s not to say lawn mowers and other gas powered tools are not contributors as well. The EPA also completed a study that found nearly 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions belonged to these gadgets in 2018.

Another plus for artificial grass is that the rubber particles, which lay in the artificial blades of grass, are actually made from recycled waste. However, this fact is bittersweet for the argument against turf.

Though some rubber bits are made of recycled waste, the entirety of turf cannot yet be made from recycled material. Some companies are researching ways to keep their products from ending up in a landfill, but others might not consider the aftereffects.

Player preference is another important factor in the arguments for or against turf. Senior soccer defender Amanda Bennett prefers playing on grass.

“It feels like an actual surface compared to turf,” Bennett said. “Turf gets hard, and it gets really hot as well. It also sucks to fall on.”

The old-school way of thinking is that grass is better for the environment because it is natural. Although the newfound way of thinking is that turf has plenty of counterpoints to combat this argument. Even the production process is no longer an imporance.

People must look at what is at risk in order to constantly maintain something as simple as grass.