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Artificial Turf Grass Lawn – Good Idea or Bad?

2012-01-02

A story on CBC radio recently caught my attention (related article: Artificial grass growing in Ottawa).  Apparently, more Canadian home-owners than ever are replacing grass lawns with artificial turf – the same stuff that is used on sports fields.

My first reaction when I heard the story was one of dismay.  Replacing a grass lawn with plastic artificial turf sounded just plain wrong so it was time to do some research.

If you search online you quickly find many articles discussing the advantages and disadvantages of both real and artificial turf.  Many of these are associated with one side or other of the debate so it can be difficult to develop an objective viewpoint.  Here is are a few references to web-sites and web-articles that help paint a rough picture of what the two sides have to say:

What the Artificial Turf Industry Says…

One of the larger North American artificial turf companies is FieldTurf.  Their web-site has a lot of information including a page on How FieldTurf is Good for the Environment (remember that this is a pro-artificial-turf company).  They have another page of Environmental Downloads with links to several informative documents for issues often associated with the real-vs-artificial turf debate.  FieldTurf appears to be one of the only companies involved in the recycling of used artificial turf (most used turf ends up in a landfill I suspect).  Their Environmental Responsibility page and articles in the Recycling Product News and AthleticBusiness provide a good description of how they can recycle old turf.  Note that this recycling appears to be for their own FieldTurf product only during a new FieldTurf installation and because the removal of old material is performed using specialized machinery, similar recycling may not be available or feasible for smaller landscaping projects such as residential lawns.

Other useful industry resources:

What the Natural Turf Industry Says…

Two short articles summarizing some of the issues from the grassy side of the fence are Artificial turf is an alternative to concrete not grass from the Golf and Sports Turf, Australia archives and Environmental Impact of Turfgrass from Blue Grass Enterprises.

One of the best articles that I have found that everyone considering artificial turf should read is called The Dirt on Turf.  While it is focused on sports applications and not residential landscaping, the information should still be useful for landscaping applications and even though it is written by the pro-grass crowd, it does identify a number of issues that you should investigate if considering an artificial lawn.

Other useful industry resources:

So, What’s the Right Answer?

When the issue is what to use on a sports field, then real and artificial turf are pretty much the only two options (if you play tennis, clay might be OK too).  Which solution is best will depend a lot on the specific details of the planned project.

When it comes to home landscaping, however, there seems to be an implicit assumption that these are still the only options.  For the most part, our society has accepted this as the default point of view – we have been brain-washed to believe that the green lawn is the standard for home landscaping regardless of cost.  Some historical context for this can be found in the following 2 articles:

The Lowdown on Lawn History

Lawn Madness – The Tyranny of Greenery

Anyone who wants to know more might also want to check out the book (on my reading list) by Ted Steinberg called American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn.

And then there is this purported conversation between God and St Francis.

So what’s the best option for your lawn?  Maybe neither…

The Third Option

It is easy to get sucked into believing that there are only 2 options for your lawn – real or artificial turf.  In the case of your lawn there are actually many options depending on how much your really need grass, how adventuresome you are and to some extent on how enlightened or lenient your neighbours and the local bylaws are.  A few ideas that come to mind include:

  • Consider xeriscaping (landscaping with little or no watering).  In some areas this might mean forgoing grass altogether.  How about a well-designed rock-garden with native plants that need little or no additional water in your climate?
  • Cut back on watering.  So what if the grass gets a little brown during hot, dry weather.  Grass can often survive relatively severe dry spells if you don’t need it to be a perfect green colour (I don’t consider grass painting a reasonable option).  According to one article on grub control, letting the lawn dry out helps control grubs because the beetle eggs laid one summer become next year’s grub infestation and these eggs need moisture to hatch and grow properly.  In other words, by watering to keep the grass green throughout the season you may be encouraging next year’s grub infestations that will require more chemical use later on.
  • Replace the electric or gas mowers with push mowers or four-legged ones (aka sheep).  See this link on wooly lawn mowers for instance.
  • Turn your lawn into a food-producing garden.  If you don’t have the time, expertise or inclination then look for a local group that is willing to do the work for you, maybe even paying you in produce or cash for some or all of the harvest (see this Vancouver area community supported agriculture link for an example).
  • Consider replacing petroleum based chemicals with something more natural.  Be careful, however, because ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ do not always mean safe or sustainable.  Consider leaving the grass clippings and add compost for fertilizer and using plants that attract natural predators for pest control.

If You Are Still Considering that Plastic Lawn…

If you really do think that an artificial turf lawn is right for you, I would encourage you to carefully investigate all of the issues associated with acquisition, upkeep and eventual disposal/replacement.  Use the document The Dirt on Turf from Blue Grass Enterprises as a source of questions to ask your chosen turf supplier.

Look into what will be required to maintain the artificial turf after installation.  A good reference that I found is the Maintenance Guidelines for Artificial Turf Systems from Mondo, a large European manufacturer of artificial turf that has been a major supplier to the Olympics for many years.  While this manual appears to be aimed at Mondo’s sport-turf products, most of it should also apply to their landscape products as well.  If I were considering using artificial turf for a residential landscaping project then the Mondo manual would raise a number of red-flags.  How much effort will be required to keep the turf clear of organic matter.  Will it be possible to isolate the artificial turf from trees, natural grass, sources of mud, soil or other organic matter, cigarette butts, chewing gum, etc?  What if window washers, roofers or other contractors need to raise a ladder against the house – will the legs of the ladder exceed the 3 psi static load limit and damage the turf?  How about a picnic table?  How about a person spending the afternoon sitting in a lawn chair?

Besides maintenance issues, here are some additional points to consider:

  • Artificial turf gets very hot on a sunny day.  Will that affect how you use your lawn?  You might have to water it to keep it cool.  Check out this article on Turf Temperatures.
  • In winter, will you need to remove snow and ice from parts of the artificial lawn?  Snow and ice removal requires special care to avoid damaging the turf.  See, for example, the eHow article: How to Remove Snow From Artificial Turf.
  • The life expectancy of artificial turf means that it will need to be replaced, say every 10 years or so.  How much will it cost to remove and dispose of old turf? What are the regulations in your jurisdiction for disposal of artificial turf or the rubber-tire based infill?  If landfilled, you will need to estimate future landfill tipping fees.  How much will it cost to re-install new material once the old plastic turf is removed?
  • How will the presence of artificial turf affect the value of your property?  Artificial lawns, particularly in temperate areas like Ottawa, may be a new fad that, in 10 years, may be considered an expensive liability.  What does the local real estate industry think?

Sustainability

Few articles that I found discuss the long term consequences of using real and artificial turf.  One exception was a detailed report produced by Athena Sustainable Materials Institute which estimated the carbon footprints of both real and artificial turf installations for a sports field at Upper Canada College.  They determined that, in order for their new artificial turf field to be carbon neutral, they would need to plant 1861 trees for the required carbon offset associated with the estimated 10 year lifetime.  No carbon offset would have been required for a grass field.  Even with the inclusion of carbon offsets, it is hard to call this sustainable because every 10 years more trees will have to be planted to offset the fossil fuels used to create new artificial turf.

Imagine every yard and green space covered with artificial turf and needing to be replaced every 10 years or so with the old material being hauled away and disposed of.  The resulting waste stream would make the waste stream from asphalt roof shingles seem small in comparison.  Even if all of the plastic turf could be recycled there would be a large energy cost associated with the process. FieldTurf, the only company that I found that offers turf recycling, only down-cycles the old turf into different non-turf plastic products so petroleum is still required for any new replacement turf.  It is hard to imagine how artificial turf can be made truly carbon-neutral and sustainable.

The pursuit of the perfect grass lawn is also largely unsustainable in most areas of North America.  However, there are more options available to reduce the environmental footprint without totally giving up a grass lawn.  For those who are willing to give up the traditional lawn altogether then there is the possibility of greatly reducing or even eliminating the footprint altogether.

The Bottom Line

Growing up, we lived for several years in a typical small bungalow with both front and back lawns covered in grass.  Over time, our lawns evolved into beds of flowers, a large back-yard vegetable garden and patches of clover that attracted honey bees and other insects.  One grassy area in the front-yard was peppered with hidden crocus bulbs that magically appeared each spring.  We started with a push mower but eventually upgraded to an electric model.  Occasionally we had to water and some fertilizer may have been applied from time to time but overall we had a fairly low maintenance, low footprint yard.  No artificial turf could ever have made it any better.

If, after weighing all the pros and cons, you still feel the need for an artificial turf yard, perhaps you should be looking for a condominium instead.

25 Comments
  1. Information provided is very simple; step-by-step and point-to-point.. I liked the site structure Thanks for sharing

  2. Anonymous permalink

    Artificial grass is a lot more popular that it used to be. I install it for a living and the realism and quality of the turf is remarkable, so many of our customers say the same thing that people don’t realise it’s synthetic until they get down and inspect it at close range. See examples on the website or Facebook:

    http://www.artificialgrass-scotland.com

    http://www.facebook.com/evermoregrass

  3. Anonymous:

    I have no doubt that the technology is improving and becoming more popular.

    Here’s what I would ask you if I were interested in installing one of your products: What happens when your turf reaches its 10-year life-span? Is there a recycling process or does it go to the local landfill? Does your company participate in this process and if not who would we talk to? What are the tipping costs at a typical landfill in Scotland? I would also want to know the answers to these questions if I were buying a house that already had artificial turf installed.

  4. Nice post.Its really nice the way every procedure is been explained .Thanks for sharing valuable information

  5. Anonymous permalink

    I wish naysayers of artificial turf would address HOAs. There is no rock garden, native shrub or vegetable garden option. You have to have a lawn (of grass) and keep it green. So there are only two options for us.

  6. Anonymous permalink

    The other issue is where you live. I live in the desert where the use of water for aesthetics (like watering a lawn) is not only expensive but incredibly wasteful. I need a place for my children to play that is softer and won’t become a cat litter box like the dirt/gravel in our yard or a sand box. I do appreciate having as much information on the subject as possible but although xeriscape or edible gardens are a good option they are not conducive toward young families that want to play outdoors a lot.

    • I see. Artificial turf might be a good choice for you then. The one thing that I have heard is that in direct sun, artificial turf can be quite a bit hotter than natural grass (kept green with water of course) and might be too hot to play on during the hottest/sunniest parts of the day. One solution (ironically) is to water the artificial turf to let evaporative cooling make it more tolerable to the touch. You could shade parts of it too with some kind of awning.

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  22. Hi Admin, 

    I have been just watching your blog, It’s really Impressive. Just loved the information and content of this blog. Artificial grasses are superior to other plants is that they are ideal for use in areas where it is difficult to grow normal plants.

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  23. Hi,
    very good article.
    I myself live in Perth Australia, which has a very dry climate.
    we have water restrictions during the summer months and weather patterns seem to be getting more varied each year.
    I installed artificial grass some years ago, one of the best decisions I’ve made.
    Years later it’s still as good as new and has required little maintenance.
    this has saved me hundreds if not thousands on reticulation, and other associated costs with maintaining a lawn here in Australia.
    My advice is to do it, but do it right the first time.
    I was so happy with my lawn I recently started my own business using the same products and techniques which went into my fake lawn

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