This article discusses artificial turf and it's environmental impact. Surfrider's Ocean Friendly Gardens program does not support the use of artificial turf, and instead advocates for sustainable landscape practices that use the watershed approach. The watershed approach restores the original environmental benefits of the landscape and includes native and climate-appropriate plants, living soils (using compost and plant-based mulch), and promotes retention and infiltration of rainwater.
Our artificial turf fact sheet provides a condensed version of this article for communicating with public decision makers and advocating for alternatives to artificial turf.
What Is Artificial Turf
Artificial turf is a petroleum-based plastic product promoted as a water- and maintenance-free alternative to conventional turf lawns. Artificial turf is also called "Astroturf", synthetic grass, or fake grass. Artificial turf was first developed in the 1960s, as a solution for sports fields in covered stadiums where grass couldn’t be grown. Developed by the chemical company Monsanto, under the name “Chem Grass”, artificial turf was made by tufting plastic fibers onto a plastic backing with machines similar to ones that make indoor carpets and rugs. It is often topped with infill, small pellets that help act as padding. Infill is either sand or made from a range of materials like ground up tire crumb, plastics, or natural materials coated in a plastic layer.
Before artificial turf is laid down on a surface, the soil below it is compacted. Then, a layer of sand, decomposed granite, gravel, or sometimes concrete, is put on top of the soil and compacted so the turf lays flat. Next, a layer of plastic liner may be applied, followed by the artificial turf being stapled down. Some artificial turf manufacturers advertise that the turf itself is permeable, but they do not include in their analysis that earth beneath it is generally not.
Harmful Impacts of Artificial Turf
The plastic turf also absorbs and radiates heat from the sun, contributing to the "urban heat island" effect. In the summer, turf can reach temperatures of 187 degrees F . These elevated temperatures require the use of supplemental water to cool the turf to make it safe to use, and also heat up surrounding plants, buildings, and communities.
Pollutants build up on artificial turf like they would on any hard surface. The pollutants are washed off during the rainy season or when the turf is hosed for regular cleaning and cooling by property owners and managers . Because leaves, pet waste, and other debris do not break down as they would on natural landscaping, turf is often hosed down to keep clean, sending pollutants and microplastics to waterways while wasting freshwater. Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Gardens Programadvocates for preventing runoff, as it pollutes our waterways and coastlines.
There are several other downsides to artificial turf:
- It provides no food or habitat for birds, butterflies, bees or other wildlife critical to healthy ecosystems. Essential pollinators for flowers and food crops cannot find shelter, pollen, or plants that host larval stages.
- Because it breaks down over time, the plastic-based artificial turf is expected to last only 8 to 10 years, requiring multiple expensive installations. And when it no longer looks appealing, it is rolled up and sent to the landfill or haphazardly dumped, ultimately becoming another source of plastic trash. Some producers claim that it is recyclable, but there are no established recycling programs, and municipalities are unequipped to recycle the large rolls of degraded plastics. Without established end-of-life protocol, hundreds of tons of turf are landfilled, incinerated, or dumpedin haphazard and unregulated ways.
- The blades of artificial grass are made from petroleum, degrade and break off, washing into waterways. The plastic bits from blades and infill can be ingested by sea life, causing illness and death. It can also contribute to the trash TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load), adding to stormwater compliance costs. The harmful impacts of petroleum products in the ocean are well-documented Rise Above Plastics Program.
- The crumb rubber used for artificial turf on recreational fields has been linked to cancer. Articles have warned about a "complex brew of chemicals, metals and suspected carcinogens that may be found in crumb rubber [often made from car tires]... the list of potentially harmful elements that have been found in tires includes benzene, mercury and arsenic, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Ingredients vary by manufacturer and the recycling process blends different brands into the same batch, so it is difficult to predict what will end up on a specific field."
- Artificial turf contains PFAs that can contaminate drinking water are now being linked to cancer in professional athletes exposed to them for multiple years.
- Artificial turf may also harbor microbes that may are harmful to humans and pets.
Several cities or water agencies such as the City of Los Angeles, the City of Santa Rosa (fact sheet), the Santa Clara Valley Water District , the City of Santa Monica (fact sheet), the San Diego County Water Authority, the Castaic Lake Water Agency, the City of Ventura, the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (fact sheet), and the East Bay Municipal Utility District recognize that there are issues with artificial turf and do not allow it to be used for their turf replacement rebate programs. There are better alternatives, and the Surfrider Foundation and fellow organizations such as TreePeople and G3/Green Gardens Group support living landscapes over artificial turf. For example, the West LA/Malibu Surfrider Chapter was part of a successful collaboration to encourage the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to replace turf grass at its facilities with an Ocean Friendly Garden (the same as the watershed approach).
Artificial Turf Worsens Existing Problems
There are three landscape-related environmental issues that demonstrate how artificial turf exacerbates rather than solves water resource problems: water pollution caused by urban and agricultural runoff, air pollution caused by excess carbon dioxide, and the loss of the vital functions of living soil:
Water Pollution - Urban runoff is the #1 source of pollution to coastal waterways and the beach. Anything that ends up on impermeable surfaces – trash, lawn chemicals, animal waste or automotive chemicals – is flushed off during rain events or during dry days through sprinklers. The runoff is then directed into stormdrains, where it flows untreated to waterways and the ocean.
While some artificial turf and its compacted base beneath it prevent infiltration, resulting in runoff and flooding. Artificial turf increases runoff volume and reduces rain water drainage and retention compared to living grass turf, and the runoff carries plastic fibers from the turf's surface. The hot, low oxygen environment under turf and base materials and liners additionally compacts soil and reduces its quality.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) – CO2 is a greenhouse gas and a major contributor to climate change and ocean acidification. Through photosynthesis, plants absorb CO2 and release oxygen (O2), which we breathe. The plants use the carbon to build their bodies, and exchange some of the carbon with soil organisms for “plant available food.” The soil organisms can bind up the carbon with soil “glues,” keeping it locked in soil. Artificial turf offers none of the CO2-absorbing advantages of a natural landscape.
Since artificial turf is also a petroleum-based product, CO2 is released into the atmosphere as fossil fuels are burned during its production, transport, installation and removal. In a study that analyzes greenhouse gas emissions for the construction, maintenance and final removal of an artificial turf field, the total energy use was found to be 5.9 GJ and the GHG emissions was 527 ton CO2 equivalents. Our oceans act as a sink for CO2 and the result is increasingly acidic conditions that have harmful impacts on many different marine species including the weakening of shells for commercially and ecologically important shellfish species.
Diminishes Living Soil and Plants - Living soils have what G3/Green Gardens Group calls OWL: oxygen, water and life. By directing polluted water to soil, microorganisms filter water pollutants by “eating” them. These organisms and organic matter help create soil structure, with water and air filling in spaces which plants can tap during dry months (conveyed by soil organisms). Also, the carbon sequestered by soil organisms attracts water molecules. Plants, especially large ones like trees, also hold onto water. Lastly, plants and soil evapo-transpire, releasing water vapor, which feeds the water cycle and contributes to clouds releasing rain. When the soil is saturated and can’t hold any more water, the excess travels further down into aquifers or moves sideways and helps maintain flows in streams, rivers and other waterways. Plant leaves that die and drop become mulch, holding in soil moisture, suppressing weeds and feeding soil microorganisms. Soil organisms also change atmospheric nitrogen gas into a form that can be used for plant nutrition.
This cycle of carbon, air, and water is the only land-based carbon sink known, helping to cut down on the amount of carbon oceans absorb and reducing ocean acidification. Once soil is ripped apart and compacted, such as under an artificial turf lawn, living organisms die and they can no longer provide services to clean and absorb water or carbon.
The best form of water conservation uses climate appropriate plants, living soil (compost and plant-based mulch), and directs rainwater into the landscape. These are the principles behind Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Gardens CPR: Conservation, Permeability and Retention. Ocean Friendly Gardens are consistent with the term, watershed approach, which sees every site as a mini-watershed to both conserve and protect clean water – and achieve multiple other benefits, e.g., carbon sequestration, green waste reduction and wildlife habitat creation. A watershed is an area in which all the water that flows on top or below it goes to the same place, usually the ocean in coastal areas. Your home property is a mini-watershed. Groups like the California Urban Water Conservation Council, for which Surfrider is a Board Member, are lead proponents of the watershed approach.
The installation of artificial turf goes against the holistic, watershed approach that the Surfrider Foundation advocates to promote clean water and healthy communities along the coast. Artificial turf compromises critical landscape functions and should not be considered as a viable alternative to living landscapes. It under-performs on promised water and maintenance savings and fails to deliver the tangible and quantifiable ecosystem services of living landscapes. There does not seem to be a good reason to use water agency rebates for artificial turf.
- Simpson, T. J., & Francis, R. A. (2021). Artificial lawns exhibit increased runoff and decreased water retention compared to living lawns following controlled rainfall experiments. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 63, 127232.
- Magnusson, S., & Mácsik, J. (2017). Analysis of energy use and emissions of greenhouse gases, metals and organic substances from construction materials used for artificial turf. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 122, 362-372.