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The sky is blue and the sun is warm. The roar of the crowd can be heard for miles as two football teams face off on a Saturday afternoon. Young athletes kick up divots and dust to the dismay of their parents. “Why can’t the town put in a turf field?” someone asks. They discuss financial costs and fundraising methods for a project of that magnitude.

Ever since 1964 when Houston installed synthetic turf grass into the Houston Astrodome, Americans have sought after and competed on turf fields. Currently there are over 11,000 turf fields installed in the United States. While parents may think turf is better for athletic endeavors, many may not think about how an artificial field will impact local grounds, rivers, and forests. What impact would a turf field have on the local ecosystem compared to that of a grass field? There are many arguments to debate, including cost, increase of injuries, athlete well being, and more. However, the issue of environmental impact will be the sole focus here.

The installation of turf helps to lessen the amount of chemicals used in fertilizer that runs into our lakes and streams (photo by Lisa Mita).

The installation of turf helps to lessen the amount of chemicals used in fertilizer that runs into our lakes and streams (photo by Lisa Mita).

Water quality and usage is one of the most important issues regarding the maintenance of athletic fields. The average grass field requires over 500,000 gallons of water a year. Since turf fields obviously do not require irrigation, their installation has indeed helped to conserve billions of gallons of water.

Another major consideration of the impact on water resources is the use of fertilizer in grass fields. Environmentalists consider fertilizer to be a major nuisance due to its impact on local water systems. Most fertilizer is made up of the elements of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. And, 43.5 pounds of this nutrient-rich fertilizer is needed per acre per year. A football field measures to 1.32 acres. This means 57.42 pounds of nitrogen must be applied to maintain a single field.

Turf 4

The positive and negative factors to the environment are usually not at the top of the considerations when towns and schools are eyeing a turf project (photo by Lisa Mita).

This becomes an issue due to surface run-off. Surface run-off occurs when rain washes particles or chemicals from solid ground into the nearby stream or river. In other words, no matter how far from a pond or river, the nitrogen used to fertilize a sports field eventually works its way into the water.

This may not sound alarming as nitrogen is not necessarily a poison and is one of the most abundant natural elements on the planet. However, the amount of nitrogen in a habitat is a major issue. Commonly, surface-runoff brings excess nitrogen into a habitat, such as pond. Certain species of algae feed off of nitrogen, so more of these algae grow due to the excess nutrient source. These species of algae then deplete the amount of oxygen in a pond. As the amount of nitrogen-eating algae grow, the supply of oxygen decreases exponentially. Naturally, the fish and other aquatic life living in the pond will suffocate due to the lack of oxygen. This eventually leads to the demise of the habitat. Meanwhile, turf fields obviously do not require nitrogen fertilizer.

While turf fields are championed to conserve and preserve water resources, they do negatively impact the environment in other ways. The installation of synthetic turf fields causes a significant degree of ecological degradation.

One does not need to be told that the installation of a field of “fake” grass means a field of “real” grass is destroyed. This is grass where wild animals graze, and potentially live. While this may not seem to be a major concern, as there may be other fields for animals to graze; we have a responsibility to preserve our natural ecosystems. In other words, we need to keep track of how much habitat we degrade to build turf fields.

To add to this idea, we should consider opportunity cost. Suppose the town decides to convert a 130-yard by 50-yard area of open field into a synthetic turf grass football field. At the town council meeting to make this decision, one might hear complaints from other areas of interest. One might argue how the land would be better used for farmland, for real estate, or as a nature preserve, for example. This limitation on use exists to a lesser degree for grass fields because grass tends to be more “flexible” in its ability to serve a variety of interests. The turf field would not be able to be used for anything else of value once the field is installed.

Similar to ecological degradation, soil quality is another aspect of the environment negatively impacted by turf fields. This is probably obvious to the reader, as the field covers the soil. This means no animal can graze or live there, and no plant life can grow there. This ties into ecological degradation.

Soil health takes the brunt of the environmental hit when soil is installed.  However, grass fields are not entirely healthy for soil either (photo by Lisa Mita).

Soil health takes the brunt of the environmental hit when soil is installed. However, grass fields are not entirely healthy for soil either (photo by Lisa Mita).

In addition to turf fields, grass fields also negatively impact the soil. When the issue of water quality was discussed previously, it was explained how the excess nitrogen and other substances disrupt the ecosystem of the water system. The same could be said for the impact on soil. Excess nutrients tarnish the quality of the soil, which has a significant negative impact on plant life. This may not appear significant for a sports field made up mostly of grass; but this is an issue ecologically speaking.

To sum everything up, there is no easy answer. Both grass and turf fields have their positive and negative impacts on the environment. Other factors should be considered as well, such as cost effectiveness and athlete health and performance.

Is your town considering the installation of a turf field? What has your research shown?

JP is a graduate of Mendham High School and current senior at the University of Rhone Island. He is studying Environmental and Natural Resource Economics. JP brings his science background to Morris Sussex Sports to educate our audience on important topics effecting our community and our environment.

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