Real Turf / Fake Turf / No Turf
It’s time to talk turf… we’ve had a bit of rain, the soil is warming up, and loads of people are starting
to think about sowing seed, rolling out grass, and spending the rest of their spare time mowing and
maintaining their great green sea!
Over the last couple of years there has been a significant shift in the lawn and order of grass, both
here in Australia and overseas. Homeowners are seriously shifting from turf to fake grass! That’s
right… fake grass (or synthetic turf as the manufacturers prefer you to call it)! Let me just point out
right now that the fake turf we all grew up mocking and loathing has come an incredibly long way
and actually looks pretty darn good these days.
So, what’s the story? Is fake grass better than real grass for the environment? Some very well known
and well respected gardeners say “Yes”, while others disagree. So, to further explore these turf
wars, a not so well known and occasionally respected gardener has done a bit of research, watched
the grass grow, and presents you with the good, bad, and everything in between regarding real vs.
Revealing the Real Stuff
The concept of the lawn originated in England, in the late 1600′s to early 1700′s, and was regarded
as a “status symbol”, due to the extremely labour intensive processes involved in the maintenance of
a nicely clipped lawn (remember, this was well before the invention of mowing machines in the
1830′s). Huge areas of lawn were developed for recreation, play, and as a “green sea”, effectively
creating a cooling affect in many landscapes. As European settlers made their homes in Australia,
they bought many of their English style gardening practices with them, including the good old lawn.
This created some significant problems. Firstly, maintenance of a lush green lawn in Australia
required massive amounts of water. You see, in temperate England, where lawn originated, the
annual rainfall was more than sufficient to support and maintain healthy lawns. In an aridity prone
continent like Australia, just keeping lawns alive required larger, often environmentally invasive
water supply systems. The other issue facing our first turf masters was the usage of exotic grasses in
a harsh and unforgiving climate. Some of these species failed, but some (such as kikuyu) flourished,
to the point they are now considered weedy.
Unlike the real stuff, fake grass was developed in the 1950′s, with the patent for Astro Turf, the
original fake grass awarded to Monsanto in 1967. Astro Turf was originally designed as a sports field
surface, but, as any older hockey player will remember, this surface was hard, scratchy, and did
more harm than good (especially to players ankles, knees and ACL’s). But, like all things, there has
been a revolution, and the current synthetic turfs are incredibly realistic, look fantastic and feel
So, fake grass must be green? Sure, synthetic turf installations use less water than a traditional
lawn, they don’t require pest and disease management (therefore reducing harmful chemical inputs)
and they don’t need mowing (saving time, money and emissions). But don’t get too eco-excited just
yet! Synthetic turfs are a petro-chemical product, meaning they are pumping out the black balloons
at time of manufacture. Modern synthetic turf, especially when used as a playing surface, is in-filled
with rubber granules made from recycled tyres (seems sustainable….but is it?) as this helps reduce
joint injury during play. American research has shown us that these tyres have the ability to release
a whole host of “volatile organic hydrocarbons” (fairly bad stuff), as well as other toxic chemicals.
While obviously being fairly bad for human health, consider the long term impact of these products
leaching into soil and groundwater! Horrifying!
Turf Wars – Comparing the Two
Okay, so what we really want to know is…which one is better for the environment? Loads of eco-
aware homeowners are being told that fake is the new green, while traditionalists feel that real is
the eco deal. Both products have their advantages and disadvantages (environmental, social,
financial and otherwise), and, to be honest, I am loathe to recommend one over the other in terms of
sustainability and environmental impact. Instead I will leave it to you, dear reader, to make up your
Fake Turf – Advantages
It’s always green (unless of course you buy a cheap and nasty version that fades….don’t laugh, I’ves
Less chemical and physical inputs over time (remember low maintenance doesn’t mean NOs
maintenance). This is an extremely appealing environmental outcome.
Low water requirements (again, low doesn’t mean no). Many synthetic turf manufacturerss
recommend applying water to the surface, to prevent soil underneath from cracking, and to cool
Suitable for “difficult” installations (e.g.: low to no soil, pool surrounds, rooftop areas, low to nos
natural light etc.)
Good quality synthetic turf should last a minimum of ten years, with some lasting up to 35!s
Good quality synthetic turf may actually save you money over its lifespan…..so while installation iss
expensive, you are saving on pesticides, herbicides, mowers, brush cutters and their petrol (not to
mention getting your weekends back!).
Can be incredibly aesthetically pleasing, and allows greater design and installation flexibility thans
Excellent “dust prevention”… a covered surface is always better than a dust bowls
Fake Turf – Disadvantages
Depending on the installation process, the rubber bedding they use as infill can contain heavys
metals and VOC’s, which is nightmare stuff for soil and groundwater health.
It is recommended that all soil be heavily compacted before installing synthetic turf. Goodbye soils
structure, soil microbes and soil life… and good luck to any tree roots in the vicinity!
The porosity and permeability of some synthetic turf is fairly woeful… again not allowing a lot ofs
moisture through to the soil.
Being a petrochemical product, the manufacturing process is less than ideal for the environment.s
Fake turf does nothing to capture atmospheric carbon….in fact there was an American study thats
suggested it may be contributing to it, due to the high amount of heat fake turf gives off.
It needs to be cleaned… with disinfectant! Why won’t anyone consider the soil?s
It does nothing to enhance backyard bio-diversitys
It has been associated with high incidence of sports injury, especially strain type injury and as
phenomenon known as “turf toe” to it’s lack of give
It’s darned expensive!s
What happens to it when it has passed it useful life… it ain’t designed to break down quickly,s
meaning a long stay in landfill!
Real Turf – Advantages
Real grass sequesters carbon… hooray!! Australian lawns and playing fields can absorb a massives
amount of CO2 every year… what a top carbon sink!
Real turf produces oxygen… 58 square metres of lawn provide enough oxygen for one person fors
an entire day.
Lawns modify temperature around buildings, and in our urban spaces. On a block of eight averages
houses, front lawns have the cooling effect of 70 tonnes of air conditioning.
Excellent “dust prevention”… a covered surface is always better than a dust bowls
Real turf can trap an estimated 12 million tons of dust and dirt released annually into thes
Houses surrounded by turf are less likely to be affected by bushfire, as the turf retards the spreads
Real turf reduces run-off, helping to filter the water before it recharges the groundwaters
It’s attractive… well, it can be.. and kids and pets are more likely to roll about on a patch of reals
Healthy grass provides a feeding ground for birds, who find it a rich source of insects, worms, ands
Unlike fake grass, real grass does not have a negative impact on soil health.s
Lawns can actually survive on very little waters
Real Turf – Disdvantages
Most lawns are composed of a single species of plant, creating a monoculture which significantlys
reduces biodiversity, especially if the lawn covers a large area.
Monocultures lead to an increase in pest and disease issues, requiring the use of pesticides ands
herbicides, many of these having significant negative environmental impacts.
Many people overwater their lawns, believing they need a lot of water. This leads to shallows
rooting grass, which dries out rapidly in summer, prompting people to dump more water on their
lawn. Overwatering also leads to significant fungal problems and pest issues, encouraging the use
of horticultural chemicals.
Water restrictions prevent us from watering turf at all….this is not a good scenario for ans
introduced grass species.
Most of our lawns are composed of turf species not local to our area (or even our country), furthers
decreasing local biodiversity, and adding to weed problems in our remnant bushland (I’m looking
at you Kikuyu)
The greening of turf in our urban spaces generally requires considerable use of fertilisers which,s
as we know, have contributed to the degradation of much of our countries soil and water
catchments (think algal blooms in our precious waterways). Studies have shown that up to 60% of
synthetic, nitrogen based fertiliser applied to lawns ends up in our waterways!
An American study found that over 3 million tons of synthetic lawn fertiliser was dumped on lawnss
in the US of A. While it won’t be this high in Australia, its still heaps!
Mowing is a pain, for you and the environment. One hour of mowing is the pollution equivalent ofs
driving a car for 150km. Mower noise is offensive, and mowing is time consuming. On the flip side,
it’s good exercise!
Pesticide and fertiliser use is significant, and can have some seriously negative environmentals
impacts further down the line.
There are many more environmentally sound, lower maintenance options available than the
traditional lawn or the synthetic stuff. Please consider some of these ‘greener’ alternatives when
planning your open space. Not only will you be helping the environment, you will have more time to
kick back in your banana lounge and read a good book. Click here to find out all about lawn
alternatives… the sustainable solution!
1. Lawton, Graham (04 June 2005). “Pitch battle over artificial grass”. New Scientist (2502): p.35.
2. Forbes. Retrieved on 2008-01-11.
3. New England Journal of Medicine article
4. David R. Brown, Sc.D. (2007). “Artificial Turf” Environment & Human Health, Inc.
5. C. Frank Williams, Gilbert E. Pulley (2002). “Synthetic Surface Heat Studies” Brigham Young
University. Retrieved on 2008-02-19.