Artificial grass vs natural grass – Full Article
Over the last 6 years the association that I have played in has seen the arrival of 7 new artificial grass fields. Currently in my association on Sydney’s Northern beaches the football grounds go through an annual cycle like this. At the turn of the New year the grounds are relatively pristine, there are a few grassless areas but overall the fields are green. This continues until March when football season starts. Over the next three months until July the fields are annihilated by the copious amounts of teams training and playing on them. The grass that was there 3 months earlier is now almost completely stripped, apart from the wide areas and corners. The stripped grass leads to the remaining topsoil being eroded away revealing the much harder and more compacted layer beneath. It is genuinely like playing on concrete and if you are brave enough to slide tackle on it you will pay the price. This continues for the remainder of the season that finishes mid-August. After August fields get a couple weeks break before lower impact sports such as Ultimate frisbee, touch football and cricket take over. The grass then begins its slow recovery helped by two sets of holidays.
The fields throughout the season also morph and change gradient. If the soil composition is not the same throughout the entire field then what ends up happening is that areas of the field with softer soil are washed away further than those with harder soil. This then leaves the ground uneven and can create pot holes, troughs and peaks on the playing surface. Most notably this can be seen at St Matthews Farm in Cromer.
Now, before the football fields were there most of the Northern Beaches fields and reserves were either tips or farming land. This is one of the reasons for the poor soil composition and has only become a problem in more recent years as the popularity of sport in the area has exploded and the grounds are the ones paying the price.
In response to this cycle the local council has sanctioned the development of artificial grass fields. Artificial Grass fields are more seen in the United States and where they are used for the NFL and now the MLS. Allegedly they tried using them in the UK however concerns were raised over the potential for increased injuries that lead to a halting of this process, more on that in a later post.
The artificial fields are made from a very thin green plastic grass, with black rubber pellets acting as dirt. That’s what is visible to the naked eye. Underneath this is usually a sand base, on top of a concrete slab. In terms of a direct comparison to a natural grass field around where I live that is a little hard to make. Because of the changing state of natural grass pitches, I will compare the artificial grass to both the start of the season natural grass and end of football season.
That leads nicely into my first comparison. Consistency. The changing state of natural grass fields mean that coaches and players must constantly change how they play in order to cope with the conditions. However, as we are at amateur level some players and coaches do not have the skills or ability to adjust to the ever-changing conditions leading to a drop in quality. Many teams resort to long ball football in order to bypass this issue and games end up becoming about who has the fastest and tallest players, and who gets the luck of the bounce.
With Artificial Pitches this is not the case. The artificial grass stays constant throughout the entire season, both in terms of field gradient and in terms of “grass” coverage. This flat and consistent field enables players to potentially play a better brand of football or at least play something other than route 1. In this instance artificial fields have the upper hand [over the current availability of natural grass fields.
Wet weather. The local council where I live is very protective of its fields and calls them out prematurely in some instances. The council actual has three ground statuses, open, closed and light activities only i.e. dog walking. Football can only be played once the fields are open. If there is a large down poor early in the year then the grounds tend to hold quite a bit of that water throughout the season meaning that even when it only mildly rains the grounds may still be impacted enough to call them out. As a result, sometimes games are called off due to the grounds not being available.
This is where the artificial fields once again have an advantage as they can be played on even in rainy conditions. This means that not only games can continue as scheduled but teams can also train when they are supposed to as well. The ground does become quite slick, and the ball tends to skid however if constructed correctly then the water would not pool on the surface unless there was an extreme downpour of rain.
In hot weather at the start of the season natural grass is quite pleasant to play on. The ground absorbs most of the heat meaning that the temperature often remains the same whether you are on the pitch or not. Towards the end of the season hot weather is not really a factor as it is winter, and the temperature rarely gets above 20 degrees. However, when it does, the ground can sometimes reflect a bit of the heat meaning that it can be a little bit hotter on the pitch than elsewhere but still reasonable.
Artificial pitches in hot conditions become like a frying pan. The black rubber attracts the heat and the plastic grass does not help. You can regularly see heatwaves coming off the pitches when they are exposed to full sunlight. Even in modest conditions the heat is still significantly higher during the day than the surrounding area. In hotter conditions provided it is at the start of the season the Natural grass pitches are significantly more comfortable to play on.
Injuries. Injuries are apart of football and indeed any sport. However, in recent years artificial grass surfaces have come under intense scrutiny for potentially causing more injuries than natural grass surfaces. This may be down to equipment as well as the surface but ill expand on this a little later. Natural grass has a natural give in it when you push your studs into the ground or when you fall. This means that there may be a very slight reduction in grip but at the same time this is not a bad thing. As an example, if a players foot is in the ground and they get tackled, you wont the boot to be able to dislodge from the ground or at the very least give way a little to be able to absorb the impact. Otherwise what can end up happening is the boot and ankle stay in one position whilst your body goes in another. Not ideal.
Firm ground boots tend to have either medium length conical studs or blades. The theory is that both provide to much grip on artificial pitches and therefore lead to more injuries. Whether they be non-contact or contact related. In response to this, boot makers have now started producing boots specifically for artificial grass fields. These often include shorter, rounded and softer studs so that they do not offer as much traction and are therefore safer. That’s not to say that you will not get injured but the chance of it and perhaps the severity of it may be reduced.
In terms of minor cuts and bruises, they tend to happen on both surfaces. The natural grass surfaces are relatively forgiving at the start of the season when they have grass on them. However, once the grass and top layer of soil are gone then its almost like sliding on concrete. Artificial Grass is harsh and usually after sliding on it once or twice you are likely to be grazed up.
There are also social implications of the two different types of field surfaces. Natural Grass fields are accessible and usable by anyone who wants to use them. Whether that be for playing football or whether that is for a picnic or walking the dog.
However, artificial grass fields are not as accessible for everyone. You can play most sports on them, Fields around here also host cricket, AFL and football. But it wouldn’t be recommended to play either rugby codes on them, too much of the sport is played on the ground. I had one friend who said they played on an artificial field specifically made for rugby and within in 5 minutes most players were cut up by the abrasive surface and sent to the blood bin.
Cricket pitches are placed in between synthetic fields if there is more than two. If there is only one field, patches of artificial grass are placed over the hard-synthetic cricket pitches to make it safe to play football on. So, synthetic pitches can be compatible with artificial grass fields, but turf cricket pitches are not. At least I have not seen the two crossed over. I think it could be done, but you would need either a drop-in pitch, or enough space between two pitches to keep the turf pitch throughout winter. Anyway the point is that artificial football fields mean that either turf pitches are removed or they must be converted to synthetic pitches.
They also limit the amount of leisure activities that can take place. You cannot walk your dog on artificial fields for instance. This is largely a concern over dog poo being left on the field and ruining the playing surface. But there are other concerns for the dogs. The rubber pellets could potentially be ingested through either their mouths or their noses which could cause significant health issues. I am sure they are non-toxic but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t cause blockages. The pellets would also get tangled and trapped in the hair of the dogs. Anyone who has ever played on artificial grass even just once will know that the rubber pellets get in everywhere, imagine what it would be like for a dog.
It also would not the most comfortable thing to have a picnic on, it would be flat, but also very hot. The rubber pellet would also get in everything. I will say though the likely hood of ants invading your food would be significantly reduced so there are pros and cons to this.
One of the main reasons for the conversion of playing fields from natural grass to artificial grass is cost effectiveness. Natural grass fields require a large amount of maintenance to keep in a good condition. This can seem like a futile expense when someone sees the state of the fields after the football season. The fields need to be watered, fertilized, weed sprayed, aerated, relayed and even completely resurfaced most of which also includes labor. All of this adds up especially when you consider how many grounds the council must manage. This is even more important from a water perspective especially since in Australia we have the ever-present threat of drought.
Artificial fields require a significant outlay for the initial construction but after that they barely require any maintenance whatsoever. The only maintenance that I have observed on the artificial fields is the occasional re-distribution of the rubber pellets and re-surfacing of the penalty spot. This then means that the artificial fields are long-term investments. It should mean that in the long run costs are significantly reduced. This is the main benefit of having artificial surfaces and is often the main justification for them.
I am 100% for them in this instance I do have concerns over it though. I am only for it if the cost of maintaining the fields is adjusted appropriately. Currently the council charges the association who then charges the clubs for the maintenance of the fields. Personally, I do not think this is right. The council would have to maintain the fields regardless if people were playing sport on them or not. Personally, I think that the clubs should only pay for the maintenance that I has to take place as a result of football occurring. Such as the relaying of turf. As I said before I am all for it, as long as the savings is passed on down through to the residents of area and/or the players.
Another aspect that must be considered when undertaking such large projects in the community is the environmental impacts a project might have. Natural grass fields as I mentioned above do require fertilizing and, in some cases, this can lead to run off into local creeks. This runoff then gets into the water systems and can add to the pollution that then goes into the ocean. The grass clippings as well if not properly disposed of may transport weeds that are in the ground via vegetative propagation. These are the two main environmental impacts of the maintenance of natural grass. If natural grass was simply left by itself then it really would not have an impact on the environment. Eventually it would grow wild and effectively create a habitat for flora and fauna to grow.
Artificial grass on the other hand can have a significant impact on the environment. Firstly, the construction of the field completely changes the soil composition and removes all the natural grass that can be a habitat for small insects, lizards which then provide food for birds and so on. On top of that, runoff from the construction process depending on where it occurs may end up in the creek or river systems. This can then cause algae blooms and promote the growth of weeds and invasive species. Furthermore, if it gets into the ocean it creates the same issues as fertilizers. Grass although small also contributes to the reduction of pollution through the process of photosynthesis.
There are also concerns to do with the rubber pellets. There are already many cases of animals mistaking small bits of manmade materials such as plastic as food. Once they are ingested animals may become sick and may even die as a result. This concern is especially relevant to the existing artificial field at Melwood Oval and the proposed artificial grass fields to go in at Millers Reserve. Both sites have creeks bordering the oval. There have been concerns raised by community members that the rubber pellets and runoff from the fields will enter the water system and animals may mistake these as food.
There are of course always alternatives to such large projects. The main reason I believe the grounds are changing to artificial grass is due to the cost. I do not have an alternative to this, it really is so much more cost effective for the council to have artificial fields compared to natural grass ones. Having said this some of the reason for artificial fields do have alternatives.
The main one being the grounds cannot cope with the amount of sport being played on them. On the surface this does make sense, especially when you see the condition that the grounds are in after the season. But as I have recently discovered there is an alternative to this. Many of the grounds that are present in my area do not have flood lights. This is not a problem in summer because the sun does not go down until 7 – 8pm. But in winter the sun goes down at 5. Meaning that senior teams many of whom do not finish work until 5:30 cannot train at the grounds without lights. This leaves the ground only available for junior teams to be able to use. Many of these though do not finish school until 3 and cannot get to the ground until 3:30 at the earliest. This only means that the ground is available for less than 2 hours.
Now out of the 5 or so grounds closest to where I live a third of them do not have these flood lights. If they did though it would mean the surrounding grounds would not be used as much. The flood lights cost a fraction of what the artificial fields cost and in terms of trying to preserve the fields could have been an option.
But as I understand it the council explored this option and to my disbelief it got knocked back and rejected by the residents. I find this quite ridiculous; the lights are only on until 9:15 pm that is a pretty normal bedtime. I suppose noise might also be a factor, but trainings usually finish at 9 at the latest and after people leave the field its quiet. If it is seriously that big of a problem, close the window and shut the blinds, right?
Another Alternative to artificial fields is completely re-doing the natural grass fields. I do not just mean re-turfing or flattening out the surface. I mean going down 1 or 2 metes ensuring the ground is level. Raising the fields so that they drain properly. Creating the best soil structure and compositions so that the ground does not degrade unevenly if at all. The right type of grass so that it lasts longer is more durable and potentially does not even need to be mowed. A complete and utter re-construction.
Not that I am 100% sure on this but I believe St George council in Sydney’s south did this very thing. From what I understand it has a similar cost to that of the artificial fields. But they got it right from what I have been told. The fields are natural grass and withstand the punishment subjected to them over the winter months. They did the exact thing I described above by completely redoing the grounds from the soil structure to the type of grass.
As an alternative though this is expensive, not just to do initially but it also provides minimal on going cost savings. The grass will still need to be mowed, water and sprayed at some points throughout the year. Personally, I also doubt that the goal mouths and center circles of the fields would hold up for the entire season and I would assume that after a season they would also need to be relayed.
So, although this is an alternative it is not one that would provide any savings or benefits to players beyond the fields being flat and potentially better quality. Although I believe that it would only be a matter of time until the ground would degrade yet again and then you go back into the cycle that currently occurs.
Artificial fields are here to stay, it’s the way it is now. But as with everything there are ways to potentially improve what is being done. One such improvement targets the heat that comes off fields. Now I am no scientist, but I think that the black rubber pellets are the main reason for this. It’s a well known fact that black attracts heat, if you have ever stepped into a black car on a hot sunny day you will know what I am talking about.
The same principle applies to the artificial grass fields. The black rubber pellets elevate the heat at ground level significantly. But what if the pellets were white? Well I think the temperature would be significantly reduced. Meaning that playing on the fields would be a lot more comfortable.
This could be possible if after the rubber went through the mincer it was then painted white. This would mean an additional cost of both the machine and the paint. As well as an extra amount of time spent waiting for the pieces to dry. But if it means more comfortable playing conditions then I think it would vastly improve the experience.
This would mean that the line markings would have to change and potentially even the ball. The lines are currently white plastic grass with the black rubber pellets and would need to be changed black plastic grass and white rubber pellets. The field would remain the same green plastic grass colour. This would look weird at first and may look as if there was snow on the field, but I think it would add to the experience from a visual point of view.
The ball may also have to change to a bright yellow winter ball. White balls may clash with the new white pellets and be hard to pick up. So, changing the balls to something brighter like they do in countries with a lot of snow would be an easy fix for this.
Another improvement that could be made to artificial fields is to somehow reduce the abrasiveness of them. Many players including myself have gone in for slide tackles, or simply been shoved over only to come off the artificial turf all cut up. Now I don’t mean the occasional graze, that is just apart of football. I mean, taken a few layers of skin off to say the least.
The abrasiveness also has an impact on football boots and balls as well. Football boot brands now have specific built boots for artificial grass. These boots tend to feature a higher gum and rivets that attach the soleplate to the upper part of the boot. This is because artificial grass fields have been known to split boots as a result of wear and tear. I have experienced this myself when I had a pair that split after 10 weeks of wearing them relentlessly on artificial grass when they were made for natural grass or “firm ground”.
Footballs have also had to change, and I believe the outer shell of the ball is made slicker so that it slides across the surface rather then gripping and spinning on it. The gripping and spinning eventually leads to scratches and then tears. This can initially alter the way the ball moves, but then later can lead to holes rendering the ball unusable. Although I have never seen or used an artificial grass football, I know that they are out there. So, what is the solution.
America has been using synthetic and artificial fields since way before Australia. Hence you would assume that they are a little more advanced on the quality of fields provided. Allegedly on some fields in America they use a sand, nutshell and rubber combination in conjunction with the plastic grass. This apparently acts in a way that is a lot like the conditions provided by natural grass. Players do not get torn to shreds every time they go to ground.
I have also heard of hybrid plastic and real grass fields. However, this to me defeats the purpose of having artificial grass as it means you must be able to maintain the hybrid field more than you would a full artificial grass field.
Regardless if there was a way to reduce the abrasiveness of artificial grass whilst being able to keep all of the benefits it provides it would certainly provide a better experience.