A while back, Buzz reader and local designer Pascale Marill sent us some great information on lawn replacement, the disadvantages of artificial turf as a replacement material, and how to move instead toward a well planned and more sustainable yard full of drought-tolerant plantings. Now that the new year is here, and people are starting to think about spring yard and garden projects, we’ve used Marill’s information as the basis for two new stories on lawn replacement. This Part 1 focuses on the inadvisability of replacing lawns with artificial turf…while Part 2 shows you how to plan and plant beautiful drought tolerant lawn alternatives.
As we start the new year and look forward to new home improvement projects, it’s all too easy to remember last summer’s extreme heat, the lengthy drought we’ve endured, and the rising costs of water and maintenance required to keep our lawns (for those who still have them) looking their best. So many people may still be searching for ways to reduce grassy areas and water usage, while maintaining large planting areas and the curb appeal of their homes.
While most people who have removed their lawns have opted for drought-tolerant replacement plantings (and we’ve seen some great examples in our local neighborhoods), some people have chosen – or are considering – artificial turf instead. And it’s often an easy sell. You definitely don’t have to water – or mow – it. It’s also made with recycled materials that would otherwise end up in landfills…and people are attracted to the idea of repurposing old materials. Some people are also attracted to the uniform, evergreen look of artificial turf.
But while those might be attractive features, artificial turf does come with some big disadvantages that make it hard to recommend. So much so that even the DWP, which once promoted artificial turf in its lawn replacement programs, no longer does so. To find out why, we have to look deeper than the surface advantages…as in deep down into the soil, to see what happens when artificial turf is installed.
First of all, there’s an ongoing debate about the safety of the rubber beads that provide structure to the “grass” blades in artificial turf. The beads are made from recycled tires, which contain a number of toxic chemicals. Of course, the turf industry claims its products are very safe. But some consumer groups claim the opposite. In fact, though, research on artificial turf safety is mixed and still evolving. On one hand, there have been some reports of “cancer clusters” (higher than average instances of certain kinds of cancers) reported among groups of athletes that spend a lot of time playing on artificial turf. On the other hand, other studies have not been able to conclusively link the cancers to turf exposure. Federal EPA research on the subject, which may provide a more definitive answer one way or the other, is currently still under peer review, and findings are expected to be released later this year.
But possible toxicity isn’t the only issue.
Artificial turf may also be hazardous when it comes to things like burns and heat exhaustion. That’s because real grass is about 85% water, and provides a relatively cool surface for playing, sitting and walking on. But artificial turf is not naturally water-cooled, and both surface temperatures and reflected heat can soar, especially under direct sunlight. According to the New York State Department of Health:
“In June 2002 at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah, the average surface temperature on a synthetic turf field was reported to be 117°F while the average surface temperatures on natural turf and asphalt were 78°F and 110°F, respectively.”
The report said surface temperatures on the BYU field reached a maximum of 200°F…and:
“A turf specialist at the University of Missouri reported measuring an air temperature of 138°F at “head-level” height on the university’s synthetic turf field on a sunny 98°F day. The surface temperature of the field was reported to be 178°F.”
Those higher temperatures can be dangerous to those who walk and play on artificial turf (as anything over 117 degrees may cause burns)…but also to the life below, in the “soil food web.”
The soil food web is the bottom of the food chain, including all the microorganisms that have a symbiotic relationship with the surface-level plants. These bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, mocroathropods, earthworms and other organisms fertilize the soil, nurture plants and increase soil porousness, which helps moisture seep in to water the plants…and also reduces wasteful runoff when it rains. The beneficial microorganisms also prey on crop pests and provide food for above-ground insects, birds and more.
But the increased heat from artificial turf can change the underlying soil characteristics, and can kill off the teeming life below the surface. And when the bottom of the food chain disappears, the effects eventually ripple upward…affecting larger organisms, all the way to foods we rely on as humans (and, potentially, we as humans, too).
In recent years, the turf industry has responded to some of these issues with more permeable products. But while the new products do allow more water to enter the soil, the more breatheable surfaces also allow more weeds to grow up. And that means that – just as with a live grass lawn – you may still need to either weed occasionally, or use chemical weedkillers.
OK…so now you know why you probably don’t want to replace your living green lawn with artificial turf. But what should you replace it with…and how do you do that? Stay tuned for “Lawn Replacement, Part 2: How to Choose New Plants” on Saturday!