Broader environment

Have you considered the broader environmental impacts of the playing surface?

There are many environmental issues that need to be considered when making a decision on a suitable surface. Rather than provide advice on which is the more environmentally sustainable choice, the information below is provided as a initial starting point and to help initiate thinking and discussion.

With many states of Australia including WA experiencing extreme drought and water shortages over the past decade, the heavy irrigation needs of maintaining natural grass playing fields has been questioned and alternatives have been sought. These include better management and use of water by harvesting rainwater for re-use, or using recycled waste water for irrigation. Another alternative is to install a synthetic turf surface, which, from a water perspective has a major advantage over natural grass for most sports (excludes wet-dressed synthetic surfaces).

Synthetic turf is often promoted as being a ‘green’ alternative to natural grass. The main ecological benefits of synthetic turf that are promoted are:

  • Conserves water (research in the US has shown that each full-sized rectangular field saves between 1.8 million to 3.7 million litres of water each year).
  • No mowing (mowing , especially large areas of natural grass, use fossil fuels and contribute carbon dioxide into the atmosphere).
  • No pesticides or herbicides for pest and disease management are required (reducing harmful chemical inputs).
  • Recycled materials are often used (rubber granules are often used in the base of synthetic turf as infill, these rubber granules are usually made from recycled tyres, keeping them out of landfill and reused sandshoe cushioning can be used for the shock pad).

However, there are other environmental considerations such as:

  • water issues (i.e. stormwater runoff and leaching)
  • carbon footprint
  • emissions from materials manufacture and transportation
  • end of life disposal
  • the impact on local micro environments
  • soil regeneration and dust stabilisation
  • heat dissipation
  • noise
  • glare
  • effects on local biodiversity and habit.

These issues need to be taken into account when considering the full environmental impact of each surface.

It is not the intention of this guide to rule one surface type more environmentally friendly than the other but to present the findings of research into the benefits and impacts of each surface.

The table below provides a summary of the environmental impacts of Natural Grass and Synthetic Turf.

Area

Natural grass

Synthetic turf

Water

Usage

Requires significant amounts of irrigation for growth.

Does not require irrigation for growth, some watering required for maintenance of specific types of synthetic turf i.e. water based hockey pitches.

Stormwater capture

Provides for natural infiltration of water through the soil profile reducing runoff.

Inhibits natural infiltration of water increasing runoff (synthetic turf can include drainage systems to compensate for their inability to take in water and capture and storage systems that can harvest rainwater for re-use).

Runoff Water Quality

Potential for nutrient/chemical leaching from pesticide and fertilisers into waterways if not managed carefully.

Potential for leaching of heavy metals and other residues from synthetic material and/or rubber infill (depending on type of surface and materials used).

Carbon

Carbon footprint

Carbon emissions generally come from the installation and maintenance stage (fertiliser production, mowing and lawn management). Tends to have lower carbon footprint over entire lifecycle.

Carbon emissions come from the processing, production, transportation, installation, maintenance and disposal stages. These material impacts over the entire lifecycle significantly increase the carbon footprint

Carbon sink

Helps remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and stores it as organic carbon in soil, making it an important carbon sink.

Does not have the ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

Material

Manufacture

Natural product grown from seed. Requires water and chemical inputs in the form of fertiliser and pesticides for growth and quality.

Petro-chemical product which uses mostly virgin materials, some of the materials can be made from recycled content(e.g. rubber granules infill and shock pad)

Transport

Natural instant lawns have short shelf lives and can only be transported shorter distances, or they are planted from seeds which have minimal transportation costs.

Generally speaking synthetic turf is transported long distances (even if it is supplied by a local company the manufacturing of the product is often performed overseas) resulting in high transport costs.

End of Life

Natural grass does not have a definitive end of life however may be replaced to enhance the current surface. Disposal is not normally required.

Ends up in landfill where it takes a long time to break down. High disposal costs.

Soil

Natural grass improves the soil by stimulating biological life and by creating a more favourable soil structure.

Heavily compacting the soil before installing synthetic turf damages soil structure, soil microbes and soil life.

Dust stabilisation

Well maintained grass captures dirt and dust from the atmosphere.

During severe drought periods and tight water restrictions natural grass can deteriorate and dust may become an issue.

Covered surfaces are effective dust stabilisers and synthetic turf will provide dust stabilisation even through drought periods.

Heat dissipation

Natural heat dissipation. Heat is absorbed by turf grass. Cools the surrounding environment.

Heat reflection. Absorbs and radiates heat. Heats the surrounding environment. Can be uncomfortable and unsafe in hot weather conditions. Colour of the synthetic turf may influence the level of reflection.

Noise

Grassed areas present an irregular soft surface which makes them effective at reducing noise levels.

Synthetic turf fibres absorb some noise but not as much as natural grass.

Glare

Natural grass assists to soften and reduce reflected light, lessening glare.

High levels of glare can be created from sunlight and floodlight depending on the type of surface used.

Biodiversity and Habitat

Provides natural environment for organic biodiversity in the soil.

No organic biodiversity due to compacted base and synthetic surface.

More information

Chapter 7 of the Natural Grass vs. Synthetic Turf Surfaces Study Final Report

Next step

Step 5 - Social impacts

Disclaimer

The information in this guide was published in 2011 and cannot be relied upon as professional advice concerning the decision as to natural grass v synthetic turf. No assurance is given as to the accuracy of any information contained in this guide and readers should seek more up to date information prior to making a decision. Readers should obtain their own independent and professional advice in relation to their project.