Jul 19, 2011

In Search of Greener Grass

The ASLA recently linked to the Synthetic Turf Council's new free guide, Synthetic Turf 360°, which promises "to showcase the numerous uses and benefits of synthetic turf [as] the first comprehensive, annotated tool of its kind".

As skeptical as I am of marketing blather, especially from corporate consortia in almost any industry, I've got to say that description is just about spot-on. The guide covers applications from residential to commercial campuses and recreation facilities; water conservation; safety; accessibility; and more. Unfortunately, the piece falls short on one of its promises: it does not provide a comprehensive perspective on the environmental impact of synthetic turf.

I've written a bit over the years about artificial turf and concluded that… well, that I'm still too ignorant to conclude anything. For every argument I can make in favor of real grass, there's another favoring the fake. Sure, at installation synthetic may cost 10x (give or take) what sod does; but factor in irrigation, chemical fertilizers, replacement, power tools and other maintenance costs, and the two come even surprisingly quickly. Sure, we cringe at the idea of AstroTurf, but today's synthetics look so realistic — right down to brown "thatch" woven in — that they can be indistinguishable from real grass. Synthetic turf is being made from recycled soda bottles and filled with rubber crumb from recycled tires, which diverts some particularly noxious waste from landfills; real turf commonly uses tons (literally) of nitrogen fertilizer, which devastates ecosystems and consumes tons (literally) of natural gas. And when grass clippings are sent en masse to landfills rather than grasscycled, Synthetic Turf 360 tells us, "they generate methane gas, an explosive greenhouse gas and acidic leachate." (Attributed to EPA.gov.)

So when my clients ask me about synthetic turf, I've been reduced to telling them the pros and cons and shrugging my shoulders. It's great for some applications: dog runs, small patches of front yard where no child will ever play anyhow, shady backyards where children will play, under native oak trees, and so on. Beyond that, it's a matter of personal budget and taste.

What would really tip the scales one way or the other for me? One simple, hard fact that I have yet to find: a direct comparison between the comprehensive, cradle-to-grave carbon footprints of synthetic turf and natural grass. Because for all the water and fertilizer it saves, artifical turf is still plastic, and the crumbs that prop up its blades are largely still rubber. Recycled or not, these materials originate from petroleum and require a nasty manufacturing process. And while natural grass simply biodegrades, artificial turf never does. It eventually will be thrown away, taking up the very landfill space those tires and bottles would have anyhow.

Synthetic turf may be more convenient and require less irrigation than lawn. It may be more predictable, safer, prettier and more versatile and have all the other benefits the STC claims. But every piece of artifical turf also has an ugly past that the STC conveniently doesn't discuss. And until I know more about that, I simply can't take their greenwash propaganda at face value or wholeheartedly recommend their constituencies' products to my clientele.

What about you? Do you know more about turf — artificial or natural — than I do? Please chime in and help educate us all.


Deviant Deziner, aka Michelle said...

We've designed it in a couple of locations and so far it has been the right choice for the right location / client.
The first location was up in Tahoe for a vacation home.
They didn't want to mow while on holiday or pay for a maintenance gardener to mow weekly. So a small patch was installed so that they could hang out on a patch of green and watch the clouds float by.

Another location was at a city townhouse complex where there was a common area. It was a neutral zone that no one wanted to care for yet everybody's view looked down upon it. It is a nice evergreen tidy square of green that the eye looks down upon from the windows above .

Another good match was a garage roof top where drainage, weight, function and aesthetics played a role. This was the only flat usable space for a family with small kids who lived on a very steep hillside.

Good site analysis combined with client analysis and a thorough materials research can go a long way.

ScottHokunson said...

Like you John, I have yet to come to a conclusion. Sports played on artificial turf are great, but what is the environmental impact? Your comment "with rubber crumb from recycled tires, which diverts some particularly noxious waste from landfills.", makes me wonder why we might divert these toxins to areas that our children play in, or that drain off into sensitive ecological areas. It seems the discussion about synthetic turf always centers on the comparison between the chemically fertilized and cared for lawns, and not organically cared for lawns. Maybe when all three are considered the real answer will rise to the top.

Thanks for stimulating the brain cells this morning, but then, you always do!

John said...

Michelle, you prove my point that synturf can be the best solution in some spaces — and you demonstrate how much value a smart designer brings in making the choice!

Scott, that's a great point about "organic" lawns. For years I've gotten by on grasscycling with one annual hit of fertilizer at the minimum application rate. But then again, my lawn isn't a lush showpiece. And part of the reason I don't fertilize more is precisely because my children play on this lawn — as nice as synturf would look (and as much water as it would save me, especially this time of year), I'm not sure I want them rolling around on plastic and rubber.

Thanks, both, for adding your wisdom!