How green is the industry?

Tim Lodgein Football

Dr Tim Lodge of Agrostis Turf Consultancy Ltd enters the artificial versus natural turf debate. He is disturbed by the direct comparisons being made between the two surfaces and the pre-occupation with the experience of the player to the exclusion of all other possible users of the space. He suggests that most public open spaces are enjoyed in many more ways, and by many more people, than just those that actually take part in the specific and organised sports intended to be played upon them.

How green is the industry? was the title of a debate held recently at the SAPCA Technical Meeting, a worthy and well supported event with many prominent people in attendance. The industry referred to was the construction and maintenance of artificial playing surfaces, although a natural turf representative was available for comment from the platform. Most of the discussion concerned what form of yarn should go into carpet manufacture, what can be done with carpets that have come to the end of their serviceable lives to avoid them having to go into landfill, what are the alternatives to virgin sand and SBR as carpet fill materials, what are the alternatives to virgin stone in sub base systems?

It is excellent and very necessary that we should be addressing these environmental issues, not least because, if we don't, then the state will, as is happening in various ways within the UK and across Europe. All involved with the installation of artificial outdoor sports surfaces must be ahead of the game on these matters if debilitating legislation is not to be imposed from above.

Coming from a background concerned primarily with natural turf, however, the answer to the question 'How green is the industry?' and referring only to artificial surfaces would seem to me to be simply 'not at all'. The approaches to greening that were discussed are in fact mitigation procedures intended to make a generally negative environmental impact less negative. The end result can only be negative in relation to these installations. To be clear, this would be the case with almost any entirely artificial structure; roads, car parks, supermarkets, etc., so it is unfair to identify sports surfaces as any kind of exception in this respect.

By contrast, natural turf, being a living thing, is intrinsically a positive environmental feature. It is a carbon sink and not a source, the soil it grows on is usually a natural water attenuation system, depending upon the mowing regime it can accommodate a range of other plant and animal species, etc., etc. I could go on.

Possible exceptions might include very intensively maintained golf greens, though these represent a tiny proportion of the land occupied by golf courses which are, I would say and in the UK at least, generally very positive environmental features. Witness the number of golf courses that are also SSSIs, for example.

The main thrust of the artificial versus natural turf debate concerns team sport pitches and chiefly football and rugby. The FA and FIFA have committed huge amounts of money to the development and installation of artificial grass pitches and it is such surfaces that are in most peoples minds when the comparison with natural turf is made.

The driving force behind the development of artificial surfaces is the opinion and experience of the players. The FIFA spokesperson at our meeting indicated that the objective with an artificial surface is to reproduce the experience of playing on the highest standard of natural turf.

Research was presented which indicated that this had been very nearly achieved with the products that are now available. I have no doubt that this is the case and, in this respect, the industry has been very successful indeed. The artificial surfaces we at Agrostis have designed and had installed by good contractors and with good materials have certainly all been of superb quality and have been to the tremendous satisfaction of the players of the particular game in each case.

What disturbs me, when a direct comparison is required to be made with a comparable natural turf surface, is this pre-occupation with the experience of the player to the exclusion of all other possible users of the space. Considering most public open spaces, huge areas of natural turf are usually line marked for sports. But these areas are enjoyed in many more ways and by many more people than just those that actually take part in the specific and organised sports intended to be played upon them.

Add to this the removal of access due to the installation of fencing around an artificial installation and what you are doing by building an AGP or MUGA in a public open space is commodifying yet more of our open green areas and preventing a large number of people from enjoying them in their own way. We are urbanising and isolating more and more of our green space by doing this and, from a social and psychological perspective, this cannot be a good thing.

Considering briefly multi use games areas (MUGAs), their playing performance of course can only ever represent a compromise in relation to each of the several sports they are intended for. The highest standard of hockey cannot be played on an AGP (artificial grass) rugby pitch for example. The MUGA has yet to be developed that will serve as a cricket outfield and athletics facility for six months of the year and as two football pitches for the other six months.

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And, yet, there are thousands of such surfaces up and down our densely populated country that have been doing exactly this, and more, for decades. They are all natural turf and require only the periodic change of management in order to make the transition.
Another phenomenon, and one that I think is on the rise, is the application of performance standards appropriate for artificial surfaces to natural turf. What this has given rise to is an expectation amongst some that improvement works carried out on natural turf surfaces should give rise to an improvement in performance equivalent to that of an artificial surface. It is as though the limitations and requirements of working with natural soils have been forgotten.

One of our clients recently had around £30,000 worth of sand banding done on two football pitches established on a very poor topsoil.

Unfortunately, very heavy and persistent rain just a few days after completion of the work forced them to cancel matches which caused them to question the efficacy of the sand banding. This seems to me to be entirely unreasonable. An AGP would certainly not have required them to cancel these matches under the same weather conditions, but the £15,000 spend per pitch of the sand banding is equivalent to around 5% of the cost of installing an AGP (with no fencing or floodlighting), so the comparison is entirely inappropriate.

Certainly, one of the biggest advantages of an artificial surface over a natural one is its capacity to sustain play in almost all weather conditions. Natural turf can be made to perform very well in this respect but, even with very substantial investment, a grass pitch will probably never achieve the reliability and wear tolerance of its artificial equivalent. In a direct comparison along these lines therefore, natural turf will always disappoint.

If, however, you have the land and you were to give me the funds necessary to install a single fenced and floodlit AGP, I would be able to provide you as an alternative with four or five natural turf pitches of outstanding quality requiring no more than the usual maintenance procedures. Those pitches would fulfil all of our green expectations whilst adding substantially to the social fabric and outdoor experience of the wider community to boot. Cheap at twice the price I would have thought and with far less risk in terms of return on investment!

I am not opposed to artificial pitches, nor am I in favour of covering the country with them. If they are built, it is vital that they are built properly and that they serve the needs of those they are intended for. This is why SAPCA's codes of practice etc. are so important for the industry.

What I am concerned about is that the needs of the wider community are met whenever such facilities are incorporated into the public realm. I am not convinced that those needs are being met all the while artificial surface installations appear to be favoured over naturals.

Combined natural and artificial sports surfaces can provide the best of both worlds. If they are properly and imaginatively designed, such facilities can also serve the more diverse needs of the wider community. The negative environmental aspects of artificial pitch installation may be diminished through careful integration with natural turf playing surfaces and other environmentally and socially beneficial features.

This holistic approach, however, requires consideration to be given to sections of the community in addition to the actual players of the game and to concepts other than just player experience. Even the economic aspects have ramifications beyond the simple determination of whether or not a particular facility can pay for itself over a certain period of time (and this is by no means proven concerning artificial pitches for community use).

The whole business requires a great deal of thought. A predisposition to install an artificial pitch without considering the natural alternatives is fundamentally unwise and potentially very costly. At the very least, detailed appraisal of all aspects of a development should be undertaken for each individual circumstance if the most advantageous outcome, for all concerned, is to be achieved.