Artificial versus Natural Grass!

Editorin Football

Artificial grass versus natural grass

By David Saltman

On the 6th and 7th of March, there is a conference being held in Amsterdam, involving the governing bodies of football, artificial manufacturers and natural grass experts. They are coming together to discuss the pro's and con's of artificial surfaces against natural turf surfaces.

In recent months there has been a lot of discussion on the merits of synthetic surfaces over natural grass. If we believe the artificial turf industry, professional football will soon be played on artificial grass. Sepp Blatter, FIFA's president has made no bones about the use of 'third generation' synthetics for the 2010 World Cup in Africa, and there is a general feeling that this is the thin end of the wedge for natural grass.

But the question really should be 'is artificial grass the real solution for the future?' Natural grass and seed breeders are quick to point out that the artificial grass industry is placing too much emphasis on the benefits of artificial turf and neglecting to inform aspirant buyers about the negative aspects and the problems still to be solved.

Presently,the artificial turf industry is spending a lot of money lobbying FIFA, UEFA, football clubs and municipalities to get their products approved and accepted. They are also trying to make people believe that natural grass is history. Many people wonder whether it is advisable to accept such a large amount of plastic and rubber in the environment and if it is really necessary.

Football is a global game, and by that I mean it is played in a host of different climatic conditions. In Scandinavia the pitches are subject to prolonged spells of freezing conditions, whereas in Africa, prolonged spells of arid conditions. FIFA see these problems as the justification for the acceptance of artificial grass for football. The natural grass and seed producers say that progress in breeding has led to better adapted varieties for sports fields in extreme climates and new grass species have been introduced to tackle these problems.

Such improved and adapted grasses, in combination with good pitch management, enhance possibilities of playing football on natural turf all over the world. The advent of irrigation systems, undersoil heating systems, lighting modules, rain and frost covers and a host of other new products have also made the growth of natural grass far easier in adverse conditions.

Artificial grass, has been in existence already for many years but it has never become a big issue. Due to the release of new multifunctional football stadiums, for which the architects never considered conditions for good grass growth, shade problems have occurred and the quality of some pitches has continued to remain poor. Unfortunately these poorer surfaces have helped to place artificial turf in the spotlight again.

With the introduction of the third generation artificial grass, the so called "rubber in filled turf " the industry claims to now have a product which is similar in all aspects to natural grass. This should be the solution for stadiums suffering with pitch problems. At the same time the industry has taken advantage of the problem stadiums by trying to get artificial grass introduced in all stadiums in the European leagues. The total number of football stadiums in Europe is about 400 (1st and 2nd divisions) and from this number only 8 stadiums (2%) have severe pitch problems. Moreover, in some cases, poor management of the pitch has also helped to create the problems. It is obviously clear that the need for artificial grass is rather exaggerated. Because only 2% is suffering with pitch problems, suddenly all clubs have to change to artificial grass.

Grass breeders are convinced that it would be easy to tackle this situation if stadium designers were willing to co-operate with them. Designers can learn from grass breeders as to whether a new design has consequences for grass growth. Besides this, FIFA and UEFA should set minimum norms (light infiltration, light quality and quantity, air circulation) for new to-be-build venues providing good conditions for grass growth. At the moment such norms do not exist whereas FIFA and UEFA have numerous norms for seating, safety items, logistics, etc.

Apart from professional football the European amateur market (estimated: 300.000 fields) seems to be an even more interesting target group for the artificial grass industry. Increased playing hours per field, saving of space in the infrastructure and reduced maintenance requirements for artificial fields are the main benefits expressed by the industry. Although in some situations these benefits may be valid the impression is that local authorities are forgetting that natural grass still has a lot to offer and the main reason for the problems on their sports fields are caused again primarily by inadequate maintenance.

People seem to forget that the replacement of natural turf by synthetic turf has an effect on the environment. 11 tons of plastic fibre and 80 tons of rubber are necessary for one artificial pitch! If really 30% of the pitches in Europe are to be covered with artificial turf this will mean: 30% x 300.000 x 91.000 = kg of synthetic material brought into the environment.

People are also unaware that grass is one of the largest producers of oxygen (O2) and also an important fixer of CO2 in the soil. For instance: one hectare of grass produces more oxygen than one hectare of forest. Each hectare of turfgrass fixes 6.5-8.5 tons of CO2. The latter is very important for limiting global warming. With 30% artificial pitches in Europe the CO2 fixation would be reduced by 765.000 tonnes! Opposite to this, a lot of energy is required for the production of artificial turf fibres, resulting in an increase of CO2 in the air. The industry claims that recycled rubber from tyres can be used but trials with natural grass showed that the grass would die on soils contaminated with this kind of material. Probably gasses or elements are being released and having a disastrous effect on plants. So far nobody has information available about these elements - whether they can be leached down to the groundwater and other possible negative effects on the environment.

Next to full synthetic fields the industry also offers another kind of artificial grass system. These, so called hybrid fields, consist of 3% fibre combined with natural grass. For the 3% fibre, about 43.000 km of fibre is needed to make one field. Although this kind of field is coming close to natural grass pitches, problems occur after 16-24 months due to compaction of the top layer. Besides, if the field needs to be renewed, it is necessary to remove everything (soil + fibre) which creates an environmental problem again in where the spoil is disposed.

Recycling artificial turf is possible but expensive. Rubber and sand in particular are causing trouble because of the fusing together of both elements. Until now there has been hardly any experience with the recycling of these new artificial turf products. The industry claims that the rubber grains can be used afterwards for floors in horse mangers but it appears already that horses have died after eating some of the rubber grains. This will certainly not encourage people to make use of this product.

Artificial turf will have a dramatic effect on the character of the ball game. The fields are much "faster" and players have to play football in a different way. The question is whether or not spectators are going to like it. The hot item will be "sliding". Producers claim that their products are sliding-safe, but recently, a test conducted by Dutch television learned that this is absolutely not true! The TV-station hired former Dutch national team player John de Wolfe to do a sliding test on two different approved artificial grass pitches. The strong defender was not very pleased after making a sliding because he burned his upper legs.

Football played on "clean" fields without mud, clippings, the smell of grass or dew will take away for a great part the emotion around football. Artificial turf in combination with closed stadiums is becoming in this way "indoor football". There is a risk of getting a sterile kind of match and again it is the question of whether players and spectators are looking for this.

Some people make the comparison with hockey, a sport that nowadays is mainly played on artificial turf. Such a comparison is not valid because the reasons for hockey to change over to synthetic turf are based on different grounds. The small hockey ball is very sensitive to irregularities in the top layer of the field. Badly maintained or damaged fields gave too much manipulation of the game. Artificial grass doesn't have this drawback and the smooth surface will be good for the quality of the ball game. Due to the size of the ball this aspect is negligible for football.

Moreover, hockey is a sport without physical contact making it a more suitable sport to play on artificial turf than football.

Playing on artificial grass will avoid injuries, according to the industry. This is not proven yet and this statement is only defended by the fact that artificial turf provides a smooth playing surface. Natural grass pitches are less smooth and can have holes or other irregularities that can cause injury to the players. With adequate maintenance of the pitch this risk is negligible.

In the United States artificial turf has been widely used already for many years. American football teams play mainly on this kind of grass. However, a lot of stadiums have returfed their pitch with natural grass. Despite the fact that American football players are well protected by wearing special clothes the number of players being injured or declared unfit to continue their career is very high. Insurance companies complained about this situation and it became clear that playing on artificial turf was the source of this evil. Besides this, players also preferred to play on natural turf and due to this some famous stadiums changed to natural grass.

In a recent press release by 'FieldTurf' an artificial manufacturer, one of their playing surfaces was voted third best surface in the professional League by the players of the NFA(American Football Association). The next best artificial surface was voted at eleventh. The Americans are at the forefront of synthetic production and use, yet the Pro American Footballers only voted on artificial surface in the top ten best surfaces in the League.

The costs for a rubber in filled field vary between £650.000 and £1,000,000 (including lighting and fences). For your money you will get a field suitable for more than 1500 playing and training hours per year. This amount of 1500 hours is probably only achievable for large football clubs with many members, because it means at least 4 hours of use every day of the week. For football stadiums (maximal 30 matches per year) it is without any doubt a very luxurious investment.

The industry calculates a lifespan of 15 years for the synthetic top layer but so far nobody has experience with this kind of field for longer than three years and the feeling is that a maximum of 10 year will be more realistic. This increases the annual costs considerably. Also the costs for the maintenance of an artificial field are calculated rather optimistic. Some people working already with artificial fields are facing much more unexpected maintenance work than foreseen and because of this their maintenance costs are higher than estimated. One of the points raised, is the permanent damage caused to a synthetic carpet following a concert, or similar event. Will the carpet still meet required standards i.e, bounce, hardness, ball roll, following removal of staging, flooring etc?

In many competitive overviews the maintenance costs for natural turf pitches is calculated at too high a level. Instead of £10,000 necessary for maintenance an amount of £6,000- £8,000 is more realistic. The costs involved on natural grass pitches depends a lot also on the quality of the Groundsman. Due to the introduction of improved varieties and new species extra savings on the maintenance costs for natural grass pitches are possible.

All together, the annual costs for interest, write-off and maintenance for artificial turf are probably much higher than estimated now. The industry tries to camouflage this by using and presenting costs per playing hours. In this way artificial grass seems to be cheaper, but their calculations are based on very optimistic figures for artificial turf compared with the figures for natural turf. By using more realistic figures it appears that natural turf, in this aspect, is still competitive to artificial turf.

Although the industry claims that their products are sliding-safe it became clear that this was not the case and there are more problems that they haven't solved yet. For instance, artificial turf is not fireproof and this might become a problem in stadiums with hooligans using fireworks or on sports parks where vandalism is a severe threat.

And what about dirt from trees and the atmosphere and moisture? To clean the rubber grains a sort of vacuum cleaner is used which can work only under dry conditions. In some countries with humid climates this would cause problems.

It appears that algae love to grow on the fibre, making the field very slippery and therefore dangerous for the players. Using chemical control might be easy but not desirable and needs to be repeated. This is bad for the environment and will increase maintenance costs. In some countries chemical control is banned.

Artificial turf manufacturers claim the synthetic surfaces can be used between -20 °C and +50°C making it suitable for use in cold climates and hot climates, but what to do with snow? Cleaning the pitch each time is probably not an option, so a field heating system would need to be installed. In times of heavy snow, heating systems are unlikely to be effective. Synthetic surfaces are also just as liable to freeze as natural grass, and certainly at the outdoor Academy synthetic pitches in the UK, players have been banned from using icy surfaces.

In hot climates natural grass has a cooling effect by absorbing the warmth but synthetic turf amplifies the heat. It would not be a pleasure for players to play football under such conditions. Irrigation might be a solution but again will increase investment costs.

According to players and FIFA there's no better football-playing surface than grass- springy yet supportive for running and forgiving for falls, tackles and goalkeeping. So, in principle -grass wherever possible! The inclination to think of using artificial grass in modern stadiums is based on ignorance about the possibilities of natural grasses. Too often decision-makers are not well or accurately informed about the state of affairs regarding natural grass.

Natural grass is still the best alternative and modern grass breeding programs are focusing on bringing solutions for new developments in stadiums, the infrastructure and for extreme climates. New species (e.g. Descampsia, Tall Fescue) have been introduced for sports fields and new improved varieties are coming on the market. For this, Groundsmen working in venues and sports parks need to be extra educated to become aware of these new products and to increase their skills. Also football clubs, stadium owners and local authorities should pay much more attention to field maintenance which needs a different approach to that practised before.

There are some exciting times ahead in the development of natural grass. With the introduction of new techniques (assimilated lighting) and systems such as transportable turf modules (ITM) and Bio sugar use to name a few, the quality of natural pitches can be far more guaranteed than before. The Grass breeders are convinced that in close co-operation with the end-users a quality pitch can still be guaranteed. In fact artificial grass is only suited for people who don't know how to handle natural grass!!

Sections of this article have been reproduced by kind permission of Simon Jacobs and Alex Richter (Richter Rasen).

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