Artificial Versus Natural Athletic Fields
Fred Newcombe

With efforts to increase the sustainability of our communities, there’s a push towards artificial over natural athletic fields. These fields may seem environmentally friendly because they do not require fertilizer, mowing, or pesticides—but they still have a large environmental impact compared to an all-natural turf field. 

Synthetic Turf Maintenance

It is a myth that synthetic fields require less maintenance than natural turf grass fields, or to assume that artificial synthetic fields are maintenance-free.

Synthetic fields require:

  • Additional infill material to be regularly added in high use areas (such as goal mouths, midfield, corner kick) to maintain recommended depth.
  • Irrigation to cool field surface temperatures. Synthetic fields are made of plastic and then in-filled with pulverized rubber particles. This rubber emits heat and creates a warmer playing surface, potentially posing a health risk to athletes. On a clear fall day with air temps in the low 70°s it would not be unusual to find the surface temperature of the field to be in excess of 130°. 
  • Sweeping/blowing to remove all waste items such as loose hairpins, safety pins, and bandaids that can damage fibers.
  • Chemical disinfectants, such as the use of approved fungicides and antibacterial treatments, to deter organic growth, and infection such as MRSA.
  • Use of drag mats and rakes to regularly distribute infill material evenly over the field.
  • Field markings through use of specially formulated paints (the general recommendation is to remove and reapply paint after four applications).
  • Check seams and joints for openings that may present a tripping hazard. 
  • G-Max testingor impact testing—should be performed at least once a year to ensure the field’s surface is not too “hard” or too “soft” to affect player safety (ie. concussions or joints).
  • Snow and ice should be left to melt. Efforts at snow removal are likely to disturb infill material and may result in damage to the actual turf (i.e. tears) and void any warranties.

Annual maintenance costs range from $6,000 – $8,000 for materials, plus 280 – 360 hours in labor for a single field. A typical football field is 360’ x 160’ or 57,600SF.

Replacement Costs of Synthetic Fields

The synthetic field industry states field life to be 8 – 10 years. We are aware of synthetic fields that had to be replaced in as little as 6 years (worse case was a brand-new synthetic field that sustained $100,000 damages when fireworks were set off on the field, an act of vandalism, not covered by warranty). Published budget figures for replacing a synthetic field range from $6.50 – $7.80 per SF for disposal and resurfacing of a synthetic field, or $374,400 – $449,280 for the typical football field.

Budget 6 Year Life 8 Year Life 10 Year Life
Annual Replacement Cost $62,000 – $74,880 $46,800 – $56,160 $37,440 – $44,928

Annual maintenance materials and replacement costs would range $43,440 – $82,880 for a typical football field, labor and equipment costs would be extra.


Environmental Costs of Synthetic Turf: 

  • Does not cool the environment like natural turf and therefore contributes to the “heat island” effect because the synthetic surface undesirably absorbs, retains, and emanates heat at temperatures and rates harmful to the environment.
  • Artificial fields lose approximately 4,800 lbs. of infill into the environment annually.
  • Disposal of non-recyclable synthetic turf and infill material is difficult and costly.
  • Synthetic fields do not filter air or water pollutants.
  • Synthetic fields do not fix carbon dioxide or release oxygen.
  • High net carbon loss for a synthetic field; while your organic natural turf fields sequester carbon.


Replacement Costs

For a natural grass field built and maintained correctly, resurfacing may not need to take place within a 20-year period.  If resurfacing is necessary, cost is roughly $0.24 per square foot or $13,824 plus, sod – $24,500 and labor. If necessary, Annual replacement cost for our native soil field would be approximately $1,925 over a 20-year field life. 


Environmental Costs & Benefits of All-Natural Turf 

  • Improved carbon sequestration: through the process of photosynthesis, carbon dioxide and water are used by the turf to form simple sugars that become the building blocks for the rest of the plant compounds. These compounds contain roughly 40 percent carbon which the plant releases into the soil to feed the soil biology.
  • Helps to cool the environment
  • Through focusing on building organic matter in the soil, an athletic field can improve your soil water holding capacity by 21,000 – 25,000 gallons of water per acre for each 1% increase in organic matter.
  • Water filtration
  • Reduction in runoff, especially during more frequent and severe rain events.

Artificial turf surfaces have their place in the turf industry: they can work in environments where grass will not grow, or grows marginally. There’s no doubt that synthetic turf provides a completely different playing experience for athletes as well. However, artificial fields are costly and are not maintenance free. It is important to take all factors into account when making decisions around athletic field installation and maintenance.