Rethinking Natural Grass for Sports & Leisure

For some, there is nothing more inviting than lush, natural grass. It’s a great surface for playing outdoor sports or simply sitting around and enjoying a picnic. But what we don’t necessarily see is all the work and resources that go into keeping that healthy, green look and feel. It takes a variety of extreme interventions — from planting and irrigation to chemical inputs and resource-intensive maintenance — to keep up a natural grass field, so much so that we question whether it should still be called natural grass.

Natural Grass Fields Are Planted

It’s easy to look at a football field or park lawn and think how natural the grass looks. But the truth is that it’s planned and constructed – quite unnatural to the environment. It’s even become popular to add paint to a natural grass athletic field to enhance the green color.

Sports fields are usually cultivated from a variety of grass seeds including Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and tall fescue, among others. In most cases, these grasses are not native to the local environment. Nonnative species of grass can spread beyond the perimeter of the intended playing surface, invading nearby landscapes and causing imbalances in the local ecosystem. Nonnative grasses may also require extra irrigation and fertilizers. Moreover, it can take up to 18 months to establish the type of grass growth that can withstand sports activities. Right from the start, it’s an extraordinary effort.

Irrigation Is Necessary

One of the more striking things about a natural grass field is how uniformly green it looks. While it’s quite beautiful, it takes a lot of water resources to achieve and maintain this consistency. Natural grass fields have to be watered regularly and, in some cases, irrigated to supply water consistently and evenly, so the grass can grow lush and green. Those irrigation systems are complex — underground plumbing systems, watering zones, timed cycles — and expensive.

All that pales in comparison to the amount of water needed to keep a natural grass field playable, which is around 500,000 to 1,000,000 gallons annually. Even in areas with ample water resources, that’s still a significant amount of water. In areas with drought and water scarcity, communities have to make a tough decision between conserving water and not watering their athletic fields. Saving water is the logical choice, which can unfortunately leave people without a space to play, or with poorly maintained, potentially unsafe natural grass fields.

Chemicals Are Required

In order for grasses to grow well and stay healthy, they need added chemical intervention in the form of fertilizers and pesticides. Fertilizers supply the grass with essential nutrients that help optimize their growth. Pesticides are used as a defense against environmental threats like insects, invasive weeds and fungi. It’s worth noting that nonnative grasses can be particularly sensitive to local blights and insects and require even more fertilizers and pesticides, as they haven’t evolved the natural defenses that native grasses have.

In addition to monetary costs, fertilizers and pesticides carry an environmental cost. Fertilizers and pesticides contain PFAS and other chemicals that can leech out into the local ecosystem and water supply. This can be harmful to local plants, animals, and even humans. Additionally, fertilizers typically contain nitrogen. As they break down, they create nitrous oxide — a potent greenhouse gas.

Maintenance Is a Must

It’s a good thing when a natural grass field starts to grow in lush and green, but it also means there’s work to be done. Natural grass fields require extensive mowing, weeding, edging and more to get that pristine manicured look. It’s not something your neighbourhood lawn boy (or girl) can pull off either. It takes the work of a professional landscaping crew and industrial equipment to maintain an athletic field or public park.

Gas-powered equipment is often used in the maintenance process which comes with a host of environmental and health concerns. First, the gas itself is a fossil fuel which is a non-renewable resource that generates volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including carbon dioxide (CO2). Most gas-powered mowing and maintenance equipment also have simple, inefficient engines — just one hour of mowing is the equivalent of driving a new car for 45 miles! The EPA also estimates that up to 17 million gallons of gas is spilled each year when filling up lawn equipment. For perspective, that’s more gas spilled per year than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

In addition to air pollution and environmental health, the workers who use this equipment are also at risk from the amount of VOCs they’re inhaling on the job. This exposure can lead to acute and long-term health problems.

After All That, Is It Really Natural?

A natural grass surface is a designed space. It has to be planned, carefully constructed, and meticulously maintained. It doesn’t just happen naturally. Instead, a team of professionals is behind everything that goes into it. At that rate, it might be worth rethinking the label of “natural” grass in general. Because when you get down to it, it’s anything but a natural process. It takes a lot of time, money and precious natural resources that we’d like to conserve for other uses.

That’s where artificial turf has a host of advantages. After installation, it’s a playing surface that requires minimal maintenance and offers maximum, year-round playability. Communities can save precious water and fuel resources by installing artificial turf instead of a natural grass, while avoiding exposing their local environment to excess fertilizers and pesticides. So even though artificial turf isn’t natural by definition, it offers maintenance cost savings, resource conservation and environmental protection. And that’s a triple-win that many people are looking for.

5 Myths About Artificial Turf

Myth 1: Turf isn’t safe or good for people.

The truth is that artificial turf can be both safe and provide a positive playing experience.

When it comes to safety, there are several reasons that artificial turf is a safe choice for both play and leisure. For instance, TenCate turf is specially designed and calibrated to accommodate human movement, specifically for playing the games we love. At our Centre for Turf Innovation, we combine biomechanical testing and athlete feedback to create turf that optimizes player-surface interactions. We’re always evolving our turf to empower athletes and enthusiasts to compete at their best, and that ultimately includes safety.

Another area we’re focusing on to improve player safety and comfort is cooling. At TenCate, we’ve developed a revolutionary GeoCool™ infill system that reduces surface temperature through slow evaporative cooling. This helps cool down the field so that athletes can stay in the game longer and play in all seasons.

Turf has a secret superpower of bringing people together to play in places where it would be otherwise unfeasible or impossible. Because artificial turf requires no irrigation, fertilization, or ongoing maintenance like mowing, it can be installed just about anywhere. That means dense urban areas and places experiencing drought have an option to play year-round without expensive fees for upkeep. And the ability for people to move about and enjoy themselves is better than good — it’s life-affirming.

Even in areas that have enough (or more than enough) rainfall, turf poses several advantages. When natural grass fields get wet and are played on, the surface becomes a slick, muddy and uneven mess. In order to protect the field and players, play has to stop until the field dries out. With turf, play can continue as long as surface conditions are safe — not too slippery — and there’s no need to wait days for the field to recover.

Myth 2: Turf is dangerous because of PFAS exposure.

The truth is that artificial turf contains less PFAS than many products that people use and ingest every day.

If artificial turf contains PFAS, the typical range is about 100 parts per million (ppm). It’s a very small, trace amount. To put it in perspective, dental floss can have as much as 248,900 ppm and people put that directly in their mouths. Moreover, dozens of products we use every day — nonstick cookware, prescription medications, raingear, and makeup, to name a few — contain much more PFAS than artificial turf. So are we going to ban all of those things too? Probably not.

TenCate has taken the PFAS issue as an opportunity to innovate. We analyzed our turf product from top to bottom and isolated the source of PFAS, an extrusion agent. We’ve since removed that extrusion agent from our manufacturing and now design all our turf without PFAS. With this leap forward, PFAS in turf can hopefully become yesterday’s news.

Myth 3: Turf replaces something natural with plastic.

One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that a natural grass field is, in fact, “natural.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. “Natural” grass requires extensive chemical interventions (fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides) and expensive routine maintenance (mowing and weeding) to maintain that manicured look.

In short, there’s nothing natural about it. Natural grass is completely constructed and resource intensive. Many places simply don’t have the financial resources to keep a “natural” field well-manicured, which in addition to wear and tear, can be downright dangerous for players. As the field is worn down by play or weather, the grass gets patchy and the playing surface becomes uneven — setting athletes up for injury. It’s a lose-lose situation.

So while artificial turf isn’t a natural option, it’s a fantastic solution for a year-round, low-maintenance outdoor surface where people can say, “Let’s play.”

Myth 4: Old turf ends up in a landfill.

This is another area where TenCate saw an opportunity to innovate. Because once upon a time, old turf did end up in a landfill. But we’re changing all that with TenCate Turf Recycling Solutions. Now, artificial turf of any brand — yep, we recycle our competitors’ turf just because it’s the right thing to do — that’s past its usable lifespan can be removed and recycled.

It all starts with removal of the turf field, using tractors that roll it up into large circular bales. Then, it’s shipped to a processing facility where the sand and infill is separated out. The artificial grass that is left behind is shredded so that it can be recycled. The last phase of the process, called advanced recycling, involves heavy duty technology that breaks the turf down into its base molecules, which are combined with other materials to create feedstock — the building blocks of new products.

It’s a long journey, but one we feel is worth it. Bringing circularity to artificial turf is so rewarding and helps the entire industry take another step forward in sustainability.

Myth 5: Turf is bad for the environment.

The truth here is that, when compared to natural grass fields, turf actually solves some really big environmental challenges. For starters, turf requires much less water than the extensive irrigation and watering required of natural grass. This is critical in places experiencing drought and those that have water bans in place.

The fertilizer and pesticides required for natural grass fields are also problematic for the environment. They are known to create runoff that leeches into the local water tables, bringing with it a high nutrient load which can cause imbalances in the ecosystem. Natural grass fields also require a lot of mowing, which requires gasoline — a fossil fuel.

Altogether, turf does a pretty good job of preserving scarce resources such as water and fuel, while avoiding potentially harmful chemicals from entering the environment. We see this as a win and a way of helping communities preserve and protect their local environment.

There you have it: from player safety to PFAS and plastic, to recycling and the environment, five myths about artificial turf busted.

Staying Ahead of the Game, TenCate Begins Making Synthetic Turf Without Using PFAS

DAYTON, Tenn., Jan. 9, 2024 — TenCate, the world’s leading manufacturer, distributor and installer of synthetic turf for sports and landscape applications, announced today that it has achieved yet another significant goal: manufacturing its top-of-the-line artificial grass without the use of PFAS.

“TenCate has worked tirelessly to eliminate any PFAS from our manufacturing process,” said Joe Fields, President and CEO of TenCate Americas. “We are dedicated to making the most innovative, highest quality turf that is both safe and sustainable, and this advancement is one more pivotal way we are accomplishing our mission.”

As one of its sustainability initiatives, TenCate performed an in-depth review of how it manufactures its synthetic turf. Engineers discovered a manufacturing processing aid used in fiber extrusion that contained trace levels of non-soluble PFAS, and were able to replace it with one that does not contain PFAS.

“It’s important to note that third-party testing of previous versions of our artificial turf detected only minuscule levels of non-soluble PFAS. These were far lower than the levels that have been found in common consumer products like dental floss and prescription medications, and significantly less than that allowed by the Food and Drug Administration in packaging for food,” Fields said. “We still took action, however, because we’re dedicated to giving our customers complete peace of mind.”

This is just the latest advancement for TenCate as the industry leader in innovation and sustainability. Among the company’s other initiatives:

  • Launching a groundbreaking new prog­ram to recycle end-of-life synthetic turf across the nation. The initiative, a joint program between TenCate, Cyclyx International and ExxonMobil, is the first in the U.S. to recycle old synthetic turf into feedstock that can be used to create new turf and other products. Known as TenCate Turf Recycling Solutions, the initiative is processing aged turf fields from parks, high schools, colleges and other sites.
  • Creating biodegradable infill as a sustainable alternative to rubber infill. TenCate’s GeoCool™ infill is made from a renewable inorganic mineral that’s 100% recyclable and non-toxic. TenCate also uses other organic or natural infills, including those made with cork or walnut shells.
  • Manufacturing top-quality turf that offers communities a variety of important benefits. These include conserving up to 1 million gallons of water per year, per athletic field; significantly reducing maintenance labor and costs; eliminating the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers on the field; and allowing increased play and activities year-round in all types of weather.

“We are relentlessly innovating to make cutting-edge turf that exceeds all expectations for performance,” Fields said. “That means putting quality and sustainability first in everything we do — from research to design to manufacturing.”

To learn more about TenCate’s commitment to quality and sustainability, visit www.playingforkeeps.info.

About TenCate

TenCate is the world’s leading manufacturer, distributor and installer of synthetic turf solutions for sports and landscape applications. TenCate Americas’ headquarters are in Dayton, Tenn. With manufacturing facilities in the United States, Netherlands, United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, the company serves customers in more than 40 countries with a suite of well-known brands. The company is fully vertically integrated, which enables it to control the full chain from R&D, through manufacturing, installation, maintenance and now, recycling. For more information, please visit www.tencategrass.com.

Media Contact

Erica Rumpke
Director of Marketing, TenCate
513-484-6795
e.rumpke@tencategrass.com