Fake Plastic Fields: Not Good for Anyone

Replace Turf Sign

Sustainable Silicon Valley strongly recommends investing budget, maintenance and water resources in natural grass athletic fields and replacing synthetic turf fields with natural, living grass as they wear out. This transition is essential to prioritizing the well-being of playing field users– children, teenagers, and adults– and to fostering a healthier environment and aligns with practices adopted by many cities in California, nationally, and internationally,

While artificial turf has been promoted as a cost-effective and low-maintenance grass  alternative to school districts and city park departments due to perceived lower expenses and water usage, recent reports underscore the significant environmental and health repercussions associated with synthetic grass, documented in great detail by the Santa Clara County Medical Association’s Environmental Health Committee. A comprehensive analysis of the full life cycle of various turf options points to the high direct and indirect costs of artificial, single-use non-recyclable plastic turf. Moreover, pending legislation in California will potentially mandate the replacement of heat-trapping surfaces like plastic turf with natural systems or other cooler alternatives. We aim to address and mitigate an anticipated rise in extreme heat scenarios, underscoring the urgency of transitioning to more sustainable practices.

Many natural grass fields are badly prepared and  properly maintained, leading to unsafe playing conditions and sometimes giving the false impression that the field needs to be replaced rather than refurbished. According to the Sports Turf Managers’ Association, the construction cost for an artificial playing surface with artificial infill and base is $4.50 to $10.25 per square foot. This compares to at most $5.00 per square foot, usually less, for a natural field with drainage.

Typical reasons for installing artificial fields, despite their higher long-term cost:

  • Anticipated water savings
  • Anticipated lower maintenance costs
  • Anticipated longevity
  • Anticipated safety benefits

Which of these anticipated benefits are likely to be actually true?

Anticipated water savings Synthetic fields include no living components, so water isn’t needed to keep an artificial field from turning brown. But temperatures on a synthetic field can reach 160ºF to over 200ºF, whereas a grass surface retains a much more comfortable temperature for users. Water for cooling an artificial field turns out to be approximately the same as irrigating a natural turf field: $6.000 to $35,000 annually

Anticipated lower maintenance costs  According to Safe Healthy Playing Fields’ calculations, the maintenance cost of an artificial field is less than that of a natural field, but the difference isn’t as pronounced as one may assume. It’s a myth that synthetic fields require less maintenance than natural turfgrass fields or that synthetic turf fields are maintenance free. Synthetic fields require additional infill, irrigation because of unacceptably high temperatures on warm-sunny days, chemical disinfectants, sprays to reduce static cling and odors, drainage repair and maintenance, erasing and repainting temporary lines, and removing accumulated organic matter. Overall, an artificial field costs range from $23,250 to $127,000 to maintain, while a natural field can cost $42,800 to $205,500 yearly.

 What Can I Do?

 As a parent, as a citizen and as a tax payer, make your voice heard. 

Anticipated longevity Field manufacturers and installers claim that synthetic fields last an estimated 500 event hours. It is true that a natural field needs to be resodded after about 100 event hours.

Anticipated safety benefits Safety must be vigilantly maintained by testing field hardness regularly; infill must be redistributed and added periodically according to the results. If the field hardness isn’t tested sufficiently, serious injury can result, including spinal injury.

Beyond these purported benefits of synthetic fields, we must consider more enormous drawbacks of artificial fields: toxicity and disposal.

Toxicity Heavy metals, volatile organic compounds (e.g. benzene), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and 1,3-butadiene have been detected in turf infill made from recycled tires. Plastic “grass blades” get worn by wear from use, the sun, and the elements and can shed (or become) microplastic.Further, plastic and rubber can be highly flammable. All of this damages the local environment and can be toxic to playing field users.

Disposal & replacement Fake plastic turf is a single use product. There are no facilities in California that recycle synthetic turf. In fact, there are none that currently recycle turf in the United States. The vast majority of old artificial grass is currently in landfills, ravines, deserts, and empty lots. When an artificial field needs to be replaced after 8-10 years, disposal of the old field alone can cost $45,000 to $191,000. Turf resale has become more common but provides the same end result of being dumped in landfills or incinerated, which can release toxic chemicals.

Natural grass provides a natural habitat for insects and creatures such as worms that keep soil healthy. And as a living plant, grass produces oxygen.

To conclude, artificial fields:

  • Can be dangerously hot
  • Can be dangerously hard
  • Are more expensive than grass when taking into account replacement every 8-10 years
  • Need maintenance on par with the effort required for grass, but different equipment and  skills
  • Produce plastic pollution (chemicals & microplastics)

Contain toxic materials (benzene, arsenic, styrene, PAHs, zinc, cadmium, chromium, VOCsSVOCs, neurotoxicants, phthalates, crystalline silica, latex, particulate matter)


Santa Clara County Medical Association Environmental Health Committee Information Page

Safe Healthy Playing Fields Main Site

Safe Healthy Playing Fields Costs: Grass Vs. Synthetic Turf 

York Daily Record Worn out artificial turf fields pose huge waste problem across nation

Beyond Plastics Synthetic Turf is HAZARDOUS-

Institute for Climate Change, Environmental Health, and Exposomics Artificial Turf Health Risks

Synthetic Turf Fields Are Failing (YouTube)

NLPA Only Natural Grass Can Level The NFL’s Playing Field

PEER Artificial Turf – A Plague on the Earth

Beyond Plastics Parks for a Sustainable Future Program

National Center for Health Research Injuries Related to Artificial Turf