Artificial vs. Natural Turf: Organically-Managed Grass Is the Healthier Option

“Every child needs nature. Not just the ones whose parents appreciate nature. Not only those of a certain economic class or culture or set of abilities. Every child.”

~ Richard Louv, journalist and author

The San Francisco Bay Area, alongside most of the nation, has fallen for a myth about sports and community-use fields. But advocates including environmental activists, budget-watchers, and concerned parents, say that now is the perfect time to begin acting on research-based facts.

The falsehood? Schools and communities have only two choices when it comes to ballfields and greenspaces: Entities can choose pesticide-laden natural grass that devolves into an eyesore, while demanding lots of maintenance and water, or opt for expensive artificial turf that comes with a host of concerns and shaky promises.

However, scientific evidence, as well as real-world experience, prove these are not the only choices. There is a third option in the faux vs. for-real debate: organically-managed natural turf fields that focus on soil health before ever growing a blade of grass.

The results, experts say, are fields that require far less water, zero chemicals, and a smaller budget. This amounts to a win for the environment, cash-strapped schools and cities, and the sensitive human bodies who take solace on the land.  

Mowing Down a Myth

Artificial turf, praised since its invention in the 1960s, has plenty of supposed benefits. It lasts forever and doesn’t get muddy; it can be played on year-round, although it needs rest periods, and allegedly requires no water (it’s a fake plant, after all). You don’t need weed killers or lawn mowers to maintain it; simply install, and you’re golden for decades. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

study out of New Mexico State University demonstrated that artificial turf requires approximately the same amount of water as natural turf to cool the plastic down to safe temperatures. What’s more, you often do need weed killers on artificial turf, because it’s common for natural grass and other weeds to poke through. And though artificial turf can last 8 to 12 warrantied years with proper care, its actual life—and impact—is concerning. Fake grass isn’t recyclable, and incineration of plastic is not safe for the environment.

In addition to the aforementioned issues regarding incinerating plastic and toxic rubber, there are other potential long-term health impacts. The biggest villain is PFAS, one of the ingredients in artificial fields. PFAS has been linked to nasty diagnoses such as liver disease, troubles with reproductive organs, developmental and cardiovascular issues, and compromised immunity. 

After years of denying its use, in 2019, research by Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility (PEER), revealed that all artificial turf uses per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they do not biodegrade, and therefore persist in the environment. PFAS accumulate in humans and animals, and have also been associated with cancer, thyroid and kidney issues, and birth defects. 

PFAS contaminates drinking water, groundwater, and your rivers and streams. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises that 20 parts per quadrillion is the maximum safe level for PFAS in drinking water. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for example, after installing a so-called “PFAS-free” field, water tests showed 135 parts per trillion of PFAS. Similarly, after installing artificial turf at Amity High School, in Woodbridge, Connecticut, PFAS in the water supply exceeded the EPA recommendation. 

In addition to the PFAS lingering chemicals, crumb rubber infill is used in approximately 90% of synthetic turf installations, and contains neurotoxic heavy metals such as lead, as well as benzene, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

Crumbs become airborne, and kids and adults occupying the plastic turf breathe them in; they are often tracked home on clothes and gear. Crumb rubber is so toxic, you can’t legally dispose of it in landfills, or in the ocean. The Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) notes, as artificial turf ages, it releases lead dust, increasing children’s exposure. Artificial turf also sheds microplastics. The constant use of artificial turf creates tiny plastic particles, and these microplastics end up contaminating the environment, including waterways. 

Fake playing surfaces, in other words, are harming the environment and humans. If that’s not enough to have you question the sustainability of man-made turf, the dough for installation (an artificial football field can easily run between $500,000 and well north of a million) that a school has to cough up every decade or so doesn’t look too desirable.

In addition to the multiple chemical problems, artificial turf fields can reach temperatures up to 200℉. In one study, artificial turf surface temperatures averaged 140℉ to 170℉. Temperatures over 120℉ can cause burns within two seconds of skin contact. This is a serious problem in California where temperatures reach the triple digits in many areas, multiple days a year. In the past few years, five artificial turf fields in Los Angeles schools had to be shut down because the turf was melting on players’ cleats

There is also evidence showing that athletes sustain serious injuries far more often on synthetic grass. Case Western Reserve University, and the University Hospitals Sports Medicine Institute, found that athletes were 58% more likely to become injured on artificial turf. Several towns and cities, including Boston, Massachusetts, and Millbrae, California, have declared moratoriums on artificial turf fields. New York State is currently considering implementing a moratorium on plastic turf until comprehensive environmental and public health studies have been completed. In Los Gatos, CA, the debate continues:

“There’s a turf dispute in the Los Gatos Union School District. That is, there’s a debate between parents, staff and local environmental groups about whether to install artificial turf on elementary school grounds.”

“The Audubon Society and the Sierra Club both oppose the use of artificial turf on elementary school campuses. According to Gladwyn d’Souza, conservation committee chair for the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club, the environmental advocacy group got involved after a parent in the district reached out to see whether the club had a stance on the issue.”

‘“​​Our position is that the controversial grass is both toxic as well as polluting within watersheds like the Los Gatos Creek, so we said we would be happy to write a letter to the school district,”’ d’Souza said.

Kyla Bennett, a former EPA official, and current director of science policy at Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility (PEER), said, “It’s only a matter of time before [artificial turf] is banned.” From a temperature standpoint, natural turf fields are much cooler than artificial turf fields—the difference between a safe place to play, and heat stroke. 

For example, Brigham Young University in Utah has a football field that is half artificial turf and half natural turf. When testing was done in 2002, it showed the average temperature of the artificial turf field was 117℉, while the average temperature of the natural grass field was 78℉

All layers of artificial turf trap heat, not just the infill. Companies are promoting “cool infill” technologies, but the fact is that the blades of plastic turf are … plastic, and they also trap heat, not just the infill. Artificial turf will always be hotter than natural turf, and unsafe to play on

Pesticides and Toxic Exposure From Conventionally-Managed Grass

Conventionally-managed natural grass, which is treated with petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides isn’t a whole lot better than artificial turf. Toxics are toxics, and at the end of the day, they do not produce a product that looks or performs well, and they pose health risks.

The negative effects of pesticides on humansanimals, and the earth, are well documented. Since 2008, pesticides, which include herbicides and disinfectants, have been reported in the top ten most frequent pediatric exposures to poisons. Many citiesstates, and entire countries have banned pesticide use, particularly around children

You might assume these harmful substances would not be allowed in schools, parks, and your kids’ recreation centers. However, conventionally-managed grass turf for playing fields contain a wide range of pesticides. In fact, the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides reports

“The common, everyday practices used to maintain our children’s playing fields are unintentionally and unnecessarily exposing them to carcinogens, asthmagens, and developmental toxins.”

Children are far more susceptible than adults to health injuries from chemicals on grass. In their tactile way, they put their hands in the dirt, pluck blades of grass out of curiosity, and may even chew on the green pieces for fun. From UW School of Medicine and Public Health, “Should parents be concerned about their kids and lawn chemicals?”:

“Children are at greater risk of pesticide effects because they are smaller and their brain, liver, and immune systems are still developing. Also, they spend more time in direct contact with grass and more often put things in their mouth. Besides an increased risk of childhood cancers, such as leukemia and neuroblastoma (the most common brain cancer), the latest research shows that exposure to environmental chemicals contributes to the rise in childhood disorders such as autism and ADHD. A recent study shows that kids with ADHD have more pesticide metabolites in their urine.”

To accentuate this point further, “Toxic to Children: Synthetic Lawn Pesticides and Kids are a Dangerous Mix,” lists the harms to children from pesticide-treated grass.

“The NPIC [National Pesticide Information Center] says pesticides are more toxic to children for these reasons:

  • An infant’s brain, nervous system, and organs are still developing after birth.
  • A baby’s immature liver and kidneys cannot remove pesticides from the body as well as an adult’s liver and kidneys.
  • Infants take more breaths per minute and have more skin surface relative to their body weight.
  • Children often spend more time closer to the ground, touching baseboards and lawns where pesticides may have been applied.
  • Children often eat and drink more relative to their body weight than adults. This can lead to a higher dose of pesticide residue per pound of body weight.
  • Babies crawl on treated lawns and carpeting. Crawling may dislodge pesticide residue onto a baby’s skin. The baby also breathes in pesticide-laden dust.
  • Young children are also more likely to put their fingers, toys, and other objects into their mouths.”

There is no time like the present to make the change, as transitioning from pesticide-rich to non-chemically treated grass doesn’t produce a magic bullet overnight. As stated in “Widespread Occurrence of Pesticides in Organically Managed Agricultural Soils—the Ghost of a Conventional Agricultural Past?”:

“The number of pesticide residues was two times and the concentration nine times higher in conventional compared to organic fields. Pesticide number and concentrations significantly decreased with the duration of organic management. Even after 20 years of organic agriculture, up to 16 different pesticide residues were present.” 

It Starts With a Method: Real Grass – Organically-Managed Turf

Chip Osborne, owner of Massachusetts-based Osborne Organics, a natural turf management company, has been dealing with these types of burst bubbles for at least 25 years:

“At the high school and municipal level, the consultants for other kinds of turf sell everyone on the fact that you can play 24/7, you’re saving water and the cost of fertilizer, but in reality a synthetic field can easily be 160 degrees on a hot day, and usually needs to be groomed every three weeks,” Osborne said. “None of that is presented in the beginning.”

Instead, Osborne, a professional horticulturist for 50 years, likes to demonstrate the organic natural turf method. When you have healthy soil nourishing healthy grass, not dependent on synthetic fertilizers, he says, you can produce fields that are stronger, longer-lasting, and more durable than synthetic (or real grass maintained with harmful chemicals).

Osborne Organics (alongside a growing number of companies) uses a systems-approach to field management that focuses on building soil health. Considerations are given to what the patch of dirt needs to thrive, including addressing nutrient-depletion. After providing what the earth needs—organically, of course—the ground is ready to grow drought-resistant, lush, and durable grass. In addition to the initial purpose of recreation, organically-managed fields assist the planet. 

“It’s a much bigger picture now involving carbon sequestration for climate change when you go natural,” Osborne says. “We’re talking about healthy green plant material pulling CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.” 

Indeed, some advocates of organic turf management call parks and greenspaces “cooling islands” that can combat the heat-related impacts of concrete, plastic turf, and asphalt. The transition to organic turf management includes site-specific analyses, and maintenance plans based on soil testing and resource assessment, as well as ongoing consultation. Some school districts are taking leadership roles in the region, moving toward sustainable management of public lands. University of California, Berkeley, Irvine Unified School District, and Pepperdine University, have all transitioned to managing their fields organically. 

Organically-managed natural turf fields don’t rely on petrochemicals (including plastics, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers) that conventionally-managed natural turf, and plastic turf both do. Real grass fields use an approach that works with nature, and focuses on building soil health. Natural practices may include aeration—creating air pockets for better water absorption, the use of lime to create calcium and magnesium for plants, and humate, to balance nutrients and stimulate soil biology.

Organic fertilizers (aka compost and compost teas) feed the soil microbiome, and the soil feeds the grass—the way nature intended. There are no synthetics, and therefore there is zero toxic run-off, as there is with synthetic fertilizers. A few of the benefits of organic grass turf include:

  • Increasing air quality: A natural turf soccer field helps to cleanse the air by capturing airborne particles and dust, and breaking them down by soil microbes, and returning them to the earth. 
  • Filtering pollution: Organic turf grass reduces water, land pollution, and runoff, and absorbs sound to reduce noise pollution.
  • Managing stormwater: Natural grass filters excess stormwater, reduces sediment entering bodies of water, and redirects water flow, allowing the soil to absorb more water.
  • Reducing heat: Natural turf can be 30 degrees or more cooler than asphalt. One high school baseball field provides the effects of 70 tons of air conditioning.
  • Increasing wellness and decreasing stress: Children who have Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and are active in green spaces, experience less severe symptoms. One study found that green spaces help children think more clearly, and better cope with stress.

It Costs Millions to Damage Your Community’s Future, Yet Far Less To Protect It 

A decade ago, Osborne did something highly unusual in his Massachusetts town of Marblehead: After 10 years sitting on the board of Recreation and Parks Commission, he voted against installing an artificial recreation field nearby. His was the lone dissenting vote. Osborne wishes his fellow voters back then would have realized what he’s known for years: There are hidden costs to fake grass.

“Three years into the field, it was a big sinkhole, and a kid with firecrackers burned a big hole,” he said. “Now it’s been 10 years, and it’s going to take another major fundraising campaign to put another one in.”

What if there were a better option for America’s fields and parks? One that lasts just as long or longer than artificial turf, without the sky-high costs. The good news is that this option exists. The organic turf differs from chemically-managed natural turf in two key areas: 

  • Organic natural turf doesn’t start with grass, but with the soil beneath it. Testing is done to analyze nutrient deficiencies, which are then addressed. Healthy soil produces healthy grass that is more drought-resistant, durable, and lush than conventional methods. The importance of focusing on soil health is also the foundation of organic agriculture. The term “soil food web” was coined by Dr. Elaine Ingham, the world’s foremost soil biologist, over four decades ago.
  • Conventional methods rely heavily on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, a big no-no in the organic natural turf world. This dependency on chemicals eventually destroys the soil microbiome, and creates reliance on a chemical treadmill.

Think of a bodybuilder addressing a diagnosed iron deficiency via a diet of iron-rich foods, alongside quality muscle-building exercises, sleep, and hydration. Now contrast that visual to a bodybuilder who simply swallows steroids. Which is going to be the healthiest, and most functionally-productive in the long run?

“Toxic pesticides are not needed to manage schools and playing fields,” says Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides. “We have proved that organic land management is effective in delivering beautiful turf that meets community expectations and the need for great playing surfaces.”

One of those community expectations is that their chosen turf saves money, especially in the long run. Not a problem, says organic turf advocates.

“The argument that artificial synthetic turf will save money for school districts and communities is not correct,” says Feldman. “And it ignores issues of the community’s contribution to the existential health, biodiversity, and climate crises as a result of its reliance on fossil fuel-based plastic turf, and the limited life span of the turf.”

Concealed Costs

One draw of artificial turf—once you pay the sky-high costs of initial purchase and installation—is that it supposedly costs nothing more for years. But that’s not accurate. The reality: Synthetic turf costs more to install, is as much or more of an expenditure to maintain, and needs to be disposed of and replaced every 5–10 years, resulting in a much higher price to the community.

Over the past few decades, artificial turf has had a price tag between $2 and $5 per square foot. That doesn’t sound terrible until you consider how large most municipal or school fields are. That means the average fake-grass football field will set a school or city back anywhere from $640,000 to a staggering $2 million. What often results is that communities—including lower-income populaces—rally together to raise funds for a one-and-done installation of synthetic turf, without further money earmarked for maintenance and replacement.

Contrast that figure to natural turfgrass with healthy native soils, averaging approximately $2.50 per square foot. Even when you add in average maintenance and equipment costs, organically-managed natural turf is the clear financial winner. One cost comparison done by turfgrass producers in Indiana and Iowa found the average total annual cost of artificial turf fields was $109,000. Professional-grade natural turf, on the other hand, ran in the neighborhood of $90,000.

“All synthetic fields are not created equal,” Chip Osborne said. “I tell people it’s probably going to be at least a $5 million investment over 20 years. But I could give someone a brand new, natural grass field every 2 years for 10 years at the same price.”

That’s because synthetic fields still require the upkeep of pesticides to eliminate weeds which inevitably poke through, water to cool the surface on hot days, expensive patch jobs for tears, padding (aka infill replacement) for the bald spots, and specialized workers to do the repairs. A study cited by Forbes, showed that natural grass fields were actually 49% cheaper over 20 years than their artificial counterparts. Another study, this one authored by Osborne, concluded:

“… the cost of a natural turf management program is incrementally higher in the first two years, but then decreases significantly as soil biology improves and water requirements diminish. Total expenditures over five years show a cost savings of more than 7% using natural turf management, and once established, annual cost savings of greater than 25% can be realized.”

And this isn’t even considering artificial turf’s negative impact on the environment and human bodies!

Chip Osborne: “If fields are in decline, money is going to be spent one way or the other if a school or city wants to make an improvement. With organic field management, we balance the soil chemistry and get the microbial life working, and costs decline over time, and the ability to hold onto water in the drier regions of the country booms significantly. It really is a win-win for everybody.”

Now that you’ve been given the information, and have seen the research, what does your common sense tell you? Better yet, where will your intuition lead you when it comes to making a decision about your community park’s ballfield or your child’s elementary school playground? Are you leaning toward plastic, artificial turf, chemically-infused, conventionally-treated grass, or soil-rich, organically-managed grass? Compare and contrast until you feel knowledgeable enough to step in, speak up, and make a difference.  


Published on February 15, 2024.

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