Artificial Turf: Is It Ever a Good Idea?

Monsanto Astroturf ad

Another winning product from the folks at Monsanto.

In the midst of a drought, our local Department of Water and Power is offering a $3 a square foot rebate for residents and businesses who remove their lawn in favor of less water hungry plantings. Those dollars add up if you’ve got even a modest sized backyard.

But the devil is always in the details. While the LADWP has some very good information on lawn alternatives as well as training classes on water wise landscaping, why did they have to include “non-vegetative groundcover” a.k.a. artificial turf in the rebate program? And why did they landscape one of their own facilities with the stuff?

In this interest of keeping an open mind, I tried to think of circumstances in which artificial turf might be a good option. Maybe if it were used ironically? But I don’t really think its use can be justified. Why?

  • It’s a petrochemical product.
  • It will eventually break down and end up in a landfill or theĀ  ocean.
  • There’s no wildlife benefit.

Practically speaking, it also gets really hot on a summer day and you’ve got to hose it down with water just to step on it. And if you have pets, it’s not easy to clean up after them on artificial turf.

And while we don’t have kids, I don’t buy the argument that kids need grass. I think kids would enjoy a garden that’s lush and a bit of a maze with places to play hide and seek. Same goes for dogs, really. They’re hard on grass, and do better with mulch. Kids and dogs and grownups as well enjoy the wildlife and rich scents brought in by diverse plant life.

As far as athletics are concerned, while there’s considerable debate on the subject, some studies have shown that sports injury rates are higher on artificial turf.

In short, I don’t think there’s an application for this stuff. And we certainly don’t need our government to incentivize it.

And just FYI, Monsanto developed AstroTurf.

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29 Comments

  1. Add to your list it’s not engaging in photosynthesis and the oxygen/carbon dioxide cycle.

    I certainly don’t get it.

  2. I was visiting my parents recently in L.A, and since i have moved and my dad isn’t the tidiest gardener, my mom put her foot down and wants to get rid of the raised beds in our front yard. My dad asked what i thought about fake grass and I was just so completely appalled he could even suggest it, ugh! I guess my mom doesn’t like the neighbor’s succulent and cactus garden because the sand washes out onto the sidewalk, as out homes are very slightly elevated. Still… How does one even clean fake turf? I imagine it gets sooty and dirty anyway, and eventually all worn out. It just sounds so incredibly tacky.

  3. Artificial turf does have its place, especially here in the desert southwest. Today’s products are far better than the old fake looking stuff, and most of the higher quality brands have at least a 10 year warranty against sun fading and ware and tear, I’ve seen installations here in the Valley of the Sun that have been in place for 10 plus years at a prep school that you cannot tell are artificial even from a very close distance. So what are the benefits: No water use (over a number of years that can add up to thousands and thousands of gallons) No fertilizer and pesticide applications (again over a number of years that can be a significant reduction in pollution) No mowing (No dirty lawn mowers, fuel, oil, air pollution, etc.)Year around green appearance (no scalping and over-seeding). When these products do reach the end of their service life they can and should be recycled. For some reason, people just have to have their turf, I am more of a Xeriscape and native plant landscape person myself, but if there is a way that people can have the appearance of turf and reduce water and chemical consumption I’m all for it!

    • I wonder about how much water, which chemicals, how much energy, etc. go into the manufacture and transport and sales of artificial turf, though? I imagine that it may be less than that into a chemically maintained lawn, over some period of time, but of course you’re not getting the ecological benefits of real grass (in terms of oxygen, biomass production if the clippings are composted or used as mulch, etc. as mentioned above) either. I absolutely agree that we have to think creatively about how to satisfy our aesthetic urges less consumptively, but we have to think about all stages of the process as well, not just maintenance after install. And really, where can you recycle astroturf? Not at my local waste management facility.

  4. I have children. Kids need grass! How can they roll around in sand or gravel? When we went to a park, it was hard for my children to understand that there might be glass, poop, spit and stuff they did not need to get all over them. So, of course, my kids had their own grass, not a privilege all children have.

    My older grandchildren in NYC were raised on sidewalks, no grass of their own. I feel like they were cheated.

    But, I suppose I am biased.

    Still, yards usually have places to hide and seek. That can have a downside when the neighborhood kids arrive and kids disappear and you wonder what they are doing. Since I was reared on ten acres and always had a yard after I married, I still feel sorry for children reared without grass of their own.

    I am talking from a place of privilege and rain, I know. Right now, I can see the grass growing as it rains.

    But, Astroturf? Definitely not.

    • Hey PP, I always enjoy hearing your perspective. I should have noted that I’m speaking from a dry climate bias. If you live in a place where it rains, like you do, I have no problems with grass.

    • I’d add to that the recent study of Southern Californian families which showed that no one ever goes in their back yards, no matter what amenities were out there — pools, furniture — and I assume — lawns. I don’t know if this is true anywhere else, but here it seems lawns are for looks alone.

    • I think it depends – most of the people I know with young kids do use their yards. Between my 2 dogs and 2 kids, our yard definitely gets a lot of use from letting all of them out for freeplay. We have a relatively small swath of lawn (enough to run around in the sprinklers, not enough to play football, but enough to play fetch with the dogs), some concrete areas enough to jump rope/hop a pogo stick/set up a ping pong table, and the owners former aboveground spa area which we turned into a dirt pit that all four of them LOVE to play in. We do just go to the park for more active running around/ball playing.

      I do contrast that, however, with the HUGE HUGE expanses of emerald green lawn in front of the big houses on the E side of town (I’m in Altadena). Every time I drive past those, I just think of how wasted that space is – and how plain! I imagine how much nicer it would look with some really great xeriscaped landscaping – or converting it to food production space.

      On another note about lawns during drought – I grew up near a military housing section of town. Each house has lawn in their front and back yards – and not much else. During the last major drought spell in the late 80s/early 90s, at first, the military told the families living there to heavily restrict their lawn watering, same as everybody else. Then, they decided that the cost of replacing all of that dead lawn was going to be enormous, so they then told people to make SURE that they kept watering their lawn space enough to keep it green. Not that I agree with that way of dealing with it, but I thought it was interesting rationale.

  5. There was a recent article talking about the highly toxic version of fake grass being used on soccer/sports fields that may be causing cancers in the people who play on them because of the shredded tire layer used underneath it all. “Starting in the late 1990s, a new generation of synthetic turf fields began popping up. Today, nearly 10,000 of them can be found at schools, parks and professional stadiums around the country. The turf is designed to simulate natural grass in look and feel. Green plastic ribbons are suspended in a deep, cushioned layer of ground-up tires, so-called crumb rubber, which looks much like dirt from a distance.” Basically these rubber bits are toxic, and there’s incidental ingestion/inhalation/skin contact of these bits as the turf is played on.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/30/artificial-turf-cancer-rubber-tires_n_5412140.html

  6. In a hot climate, and especially in an urban area, any large surface that collects and concentrates heat is a problem. Perhaps fake turf is not as bad as blacktop,but it still causes problems as a heat island.
    Being from a grassy area, I love grass, but generations of children have grown up in areas where there is little or no grass, and I can’t believe they have psychological damage from this. The owner of The Mother Earth News would be an example of someone who grew up in a harsh desert environment and has a passionate love for the earth. Even with plenty of grass at our disposal, my friends and I spent a lot of time grubbing in the dirt, making highways and playing with toy trucks and cars. I have fond memories of this. A sandbox was considered a highly desirable backyard amenity for children in my part of the country, so I guess we all want what we don’t have (the sand is always browner…) A beach towel or picnic blanket allows children to roll around or play games where a modicum of cleanliness is desirable. Another alternative is an herbal ground cover such as thyme, a Mediterranean plant. You can’t play baseball on it, but you can turn somersaults or play with dolls on it.

  7. Thanks for posting this. I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said, with two minor exceptions: I think “non-vegetative ground cover” could include things like DG, gravel, mulch, etc. as well as fake grass (I think it’s repulsive that the DWP used fake grass in their landscaping). And I think there might possibly be a place for artificial turf for heavily used school and municipal sports fields (but I’m really not sure because I know the downsides are the heat, the use of a petroleum product, the need for water to keep it clean, possible negative health and environmental effects, etc.)

    I am getting asked more and more by my clients about the possibility of using artificial turf and I try really hard to not make a face when they bring it up. I try to calmly explain all of the reasons I’m opposed to it, the same as the reasons you’ve listed. Many of them are transplants from the east coast and midwest and they just can’t imagine not having their own private plot of grass for their kids, since that’s what they had growing up. Although I don’t necessary subscribe to the idea that kids “need” grass, I do think it is nice to be able to walk barefoot on it or spread out a blanket and read or hang out or toss a ball. For that reason, I think there is a place for real grass, if used judiciously, in pubic areas like some parks. I think the Silver Lake Meadow is a good example. In cities like NY where people don’t have their own little plot of grass, they go out and use the public parks and playgrounds and interact with each other. It’s better for community building and being part of something bigger than your own fenced in yard.

    • Indeed, they include mulch and DG in their list of non-vegetative ground cover. I just wish they had not included artificial turf. And I agree that public grass can be a good thing here in LA and other dry climates.

  8. I have two kids, and grass is pretty great, but you know, you can have nice parks with grass without everyone having it in their front yards. We do have a scrap of lawn about 10X25′ in our backyard, with the rest of the garden being veggies and trees and whatever. None in the front lawn. Oakland gets more rain than LA, but we let it dry out in drought years (like right now, we’re not watering it although it gets some water because we’re watering the beds near it). It is nice to have a green place to sit, I guess, but I don’t personally think it’s necessary. Kids can and – believe me – DO, roll around on mulch and gravel and concrete … or what about a nice sand pit? My kids would LOVE that.

  9. At one house, we had a bare place from erosion. The children most definitely gravitated to the dirt with their Tonka toys, digging the dirt up and making highways for their cars.

    Maybe I prefer and need grass, my own grass to put my feet into. One comment was that public parks can and are used. I am sure there are lots of parks with many people. However, my daughter had to take time out of a busy day to escort her child to the park so it did not happen often and was a chore. I, on the other hand, just put the children in the yard and could continue dinner or whatever. Because of time constraints, I am quite sure there are children who never reap the benefits of the park nearby. Maybe the parents are lazy or maybe they, like my daughter, have things they need to do at home or think they need to do.

    My youngest daughter never needed a toy in the yard. She sat in the grass, picking around, making marks in the grass/dirt with a stick, finding bugs, and talking quietly. Sometimes, she took a stick and used it to run along the bark on the tree, quietly singing all the while. She walked barefoot under huge oak trees in the shade. I think these pursuits she found on her own in the grass were invaluable. She was only two and in the yard under supervision of an older sibling.

    On day, I happened to look under her bed where she had put a shoebox with roly polys, rocks, sticks, grass, and a jar lid of water. She was four at this time. Maybe I place too much value on the early, self-directed discovery and appreciation of nature.

    We also had/have a gravel driveway if they decided to get into sand and rocks. Plus, there was plenty of concrete and asphalt road for all sorts of adventures. I suppose the only thing we did not have in the yard was sheer cliff and water features. Well, there was the hose. Plus, the lot is bounded by a four-foot retaining wall on one side that they jumped from and climbed. Oh, and when they climbed trees and fell or jumped, I am glad there was grass instead of concrete or artificial turf.

    Since I have always lived on grass and in states that had plenty of rain, it is hard to imagine not enough of either.

    • I don’t disagree with any of this, and as mentioned, I do have a small patch of lawn and kids who play outside all the time. I think the idea that people who don’t have lawns don’t let their kids play outside or pursue independent nature-related play is a bit of a stretch! But I must say, in a drier climate, lawns aren’t as lush and nice, and aren’t as nice a place to play. Except for a brief moment in spring, our lawn tends to be more “crunchy” than soft. That being the case, kids find other ways to have fun and play outside. My kids are outside in our back yard for hours a day having fun.

    • I do agree that more important than a lawn for a kid-friendly yard is just some dirt to wiggle toes in/dig in/make mud with/spend hours of free play in (ie not just plain concrete all around). But even more than dirt v. concrete (cuz you can always put sand in a big container if needs be and fill up a large washtub with water for water play etc.) – is SHADE in our hot SoCal climate. Both for the dwelling, and for everyone to enjoy/play under. Lots of lovely trees that can fill that bill, even in droughtville.

  10. One question: If I am not suppose to leave my plastic water bottle in a hot car because of toxins leaching into the water in the heat, then how many toxins are out-gassing from the artificial grass and what will this do to the atmosphere? All this artificial ‘stuff’ is messing up the earth.
    I have heard that DWP has sent around notices telling people there that now watering days are being restricted. Something along the line of the odd/even days of gas purchase restriction. Are they going to send out the water police now? Too bad those areas prone to flooding can’t fill up some empty freight trains with their rain and send the excess out to CA.

    • You can have a freight car of rain from my lawn! And, that is just from a few days several weeks ago. However, I just left two car windows down because my car ac went out and collected 20 hours of downpours. That collection system did not work.

  11. I come from the perspective of a high school coach and a family that has no grass in our Central CA house lot. The land at home is used for fruits, vegetables and chickens. Our children and dogs have learn to adapt to no grass. We also live half a block from a city park that our children played at when they wanted.

    As a coach I have seen entire fields of artificial turf as well as fields with only high traffic areas turfed. The newer turf with the ground tires is in response to the hardness of the former turfs. Many of these new turfs are laid over dirt and have holes in the mat to allow water to percolate. And they do need to be watered, though much less than grass. I haven’tread or heard of problems with the toxicity of the ground tires, but there have been a few cases of MRSA being found in the turf. The other benefit is in today’s world of high expectations of a “perfect looking” athletic field and high usage by different teams the savings in water, fertilizers, pesticides, mowing, etc.; turf pays off in about 8-10 years.

  12. I bought a house with a blank slate for my yard. I built a greenhouse, put in fruit trees, and started growing veggies. After years of resistance, my wife convinced me to finish the landscape. I did rocks, boulders and succulents in the front. I argued we didn’t need grass, but for the sake of marital bliss I put a 500sq foot patch on the backyard “for the kids”. The grass is the most utilized accessory in the backyard (by the kids). Though it goes against my permaculture leanings, I’m ok with it. I guess I had to not “let perfection be the enemy if good”…I would never do synthetic grass though.

  13. I have a toddler and I live in the Midwest. There is a general “kids need grass” feeling everywhere, which naturally means that there are large expanses of lawn in front and back of everybody’s houses (with no children in sight, they’re inside playing video games). I do have a large lawn (inherited when I bought the house), but I have replaced a large section with 2 small paver patios with stepping stones and plantings all around. The other part of my yard is being taken over with raised beds for veggies. I have to say that grass is good underneath a slide or a swingset (we do not have either, but if we did I could see grass would be useful) and we do utilize some of our grass for playing ball and such. But by and large, my daughter spends the most time jumping from rock to rock in the garden and turning rocks over to look for bugs/worms, etc. Grass is fine, but kids like to explore and there’s not much exploration that happens on a plain old lawn. The key for us is a mix – we’d like to keep a little lawn (I actually like a clover groundcover, though, it’s less maintenance), some hard surfaces, sun/shade mix, and more garden where possible.

  14. Just wanted to chime in here and thank you all for lots of good points. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with maintaining a patch of lawn for play and relaxation, but I also think a diverse yard is the most fun type of yard — a little grass, a little dirt, some wild spaces for hide and seek and for critters to live in, some veggies…

  15. Such a great discussion. In Toronto there is pressure from clients who have dry shade about the possibility of using plastic grass where no lawn will grow. More recently the University of Toronto tore up a field and replaced it with plastic grass for the PanAm games. Here is my take on it http://ecoman.ca/turf-that-grass/

  16. Pingback: 009 Artificial Turf Wars and Fashion Disasters | Root Simple

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