Fake Grass: Dangerous, Deadly, or Just Depressing?


A new study of artificial turf made from recycled rubber tires shows that it does not, as far as anyone can tell, harbor dangerous bacteria or emit harmful fumes.  It does, however, cause more skin abrasions.

It also does not smell like fresh-cut grass, ever, and it does not harbor interesting bugs and worms that smaller children may study while their older siblings play soccer.  On the other hand, it is flawless in the way that dead plastic things are flawless.  I suppose it is cheaper in the long run, what with the lack of mowing and watering.  And everybody wants kids to have access to fields so that they can play sports.  Sports are good.

But–really?  Plastic grass?  Isn't that just sad?  Hasn't anyone bred a low-mow, low-water real grass that kids can play on, so that they don't spend their entire lives interactiing with plastic surfaces? Is that too much to ask?

Read the Chronicle article here.



  1. Would you rather have people in desert climates with limited water supplies dumping any amount of water on grass, low-water or not, or putting down this material which will get them the look they want? Sure you can look down on this as inorganic and dystopian, but I bet you’re living in areas of the country that get 30–40 inches annually and the negative impact of lawn maintenance comes entirely from carbon emissions.

  2. Sadly, no. Grass is, as you often argue right here, high maintenance. Even more so when it’s trampled and gouged by cleats and balls and sticks all day long! The amount of money and resources spent on real grass to keep it safe and not completely eroded (forget attractive) are vast. Here in the southeast where water is our most precious commodity, watering large fields all the hot summer long seems incredibly wasteful.
    Not just wasteful of water, either. The high cost of installing a turf field is a drop in the bucket compared to the maintenance expenses of a real grass field during the lifetime of the turf. That money is better spent on a whole list of other things.
    And yet, who would argue with the idea that sports are one of the best ways to keep young people active and to unite the community? It’s always sad to me when a kid doesn’t get to play because of lack of field space and daylight.
    As exercise and participating in team sports are proven anti-depressants, I don’t even find the artificial turf to be as depressing as, say, last fall when game after game and practice after practice was canceled due to flooding and poor field conditions even after it stopped raining. If a section of artificial turf in the vast natural area of the park next door really IS depressing to you, then maybe you need a hobby. I hear they always need more volunteer coaches!

  3. As far as sports goes, this stuff ain’t so cheap. One of our local school districts is running a levy next month (for the second or third time) to install it on the high school playing field to the tune of about $11 milion (at least, I believe that was the estimated cost; don’t hold me to it). Even so, at a time when people are out of work, teachers are being laid off and arts programs cut, most folks hereabouts view it as a “gimme-want”, not a necessity. Of course, the school district claims that if they keep real turf, they MUST use chemicals to keep it in good condition – as if a dandelion ever tripped anyone. Never mind what the chemicals do to people and animals; it’s either chemicals or artificial turf. No happy medium, as usual……

  4. A nearby school installed it a few years ago on their football/soccer field. (This is football country, I am surprised they allow that red haired stepchild of a sport to use the field). It was all paid for by donations- no tax payers dollars. My daughter, who played soccer on it a few times, hated it. Bingo on more skin abrasions, but it was also much harder when you land on it, which you do a lot of in both sports, but without pads in soccer. It also had these little fine balls of something on it that got in your shoes, and clothes and thus the washing machine.

  5. Fine if they want to use it on school fields or playgrounds. But it makes me sad when I see people use it in their front yards. Especially here in SoCal where there are so many cool low water plants you can landscape with.

  6. As with most things in life, you have to weight the pro’s and con’s against the situation you find yourself in.
    I’ve installed a dozen or two artificial lawns in the past few years as well as low mow/ low water use lawns.
    Each project was chosen after many hours of analysis specific to the site and the client.
    For someone who has a second home that is visited occasionally , a small artificial patch of lawn next to their deck is a great low maintenance, no water use solution for their particular lifestyle, climate and neighborhood.
    Just as there are many different people living in a wide variety of climates there are many different reasons why this alternative product might be the right choice/ solution for them.
    It’s not sad, its variety in choice.
    What would be sad is if there was no choice.

  7. “Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Horticulturist and Associate Professor,
    Puyallup Research and Extension Center, Washington State University
    The Myth of Rubberized Landscapes
    “Recycled rubber mulch is an environmentally friendly, non-toxic choice for landscapes”
    The Myth
    Discarded rubber tires are the bane of waste management; according to the EPA, we generate 290 million
    scrap tires annually. Scrap tire stockpiles can pose significant fire hazards, such as the 1983 Virginia tire
    fire that burned for 9 months. Obviously finding a market for these slow-to-decompose materials is
    desirable, and many innovative uses have been developed, including rubberized asphalt, playground
    surfaces, and landscape mulches. From an engineering standpoint, crumb rubber as a soil amendment has
    performed favorably in reducing compaction to specialty landscape surfaces such as sports fields and
    putting greens.
    Rubber mulches are touted by manufacturers and distributors as permanent (“doesn’t decay away”) and
    aesthetically pleasing (“no odor” – “looks like shredded wood mulch” – “earth tones and designer colors”
    – “special fade resistant coating”) landscape materials. Furthermore, we are told that rubber mulch is
    “safe for flowers, plants and pets” (though it “doesn’t feed or house insects”) and “dramatically improves
    landscaping.” It seems to be an environmentally-friendly solution to a major waste disposal problem.
    The Reality
    Rubber mulches have not proved to be particularly good choices for either horticultural production or
    landscape uses. In comparison studies of several mulch types, rubber tire mulch was less effective in
    controlling weeds in herbaceous perennial plots than wood chips. Similarly, sawdust made a better mulch
    for Christmas tree production in terms of weed control, microbial biomass, and soil chemistry. Another
    comparative study found rubber to be less effective than straw or fiber mulch in establishing turfgrasses.
    Not only do rubber mulches perform less effectively in the landscape, they possess an additional,
    unwanted characteristic. Compared to a dozen other mulch types, ground rubber is more likely to ignite
    and more difficult to extinguish. In areas where the possibility of natural or man-made fires is significant,
    rubber mulches should not be used.
    “Permanence” of rubber mulch
    Far from being permanent, rubber is broken down by microbes like any other organic product. Many
    bacterial species have been isolated and identified that are capable of utilizing rubber as their sole energy
    source. Such bacteria have been found in a variety of environments, including the cavity water of
    discarded tires. Although some of the additives used in tire manufacture are toxic to rubber-degrading
    bacteria, there are white-rot and brown-rot fungal species that can detoxify these additives. While
    isolating these microbes has been beneficial in developing natural mechanisms to recycle rubber products,
    it also points out the fallacy of assuming that rubber mulch is “permanent.” Furthermore, it alerts us to
    the very real possibility that car tires leach toxic compounds into the landscape.
    “Non-toxicity” of rubber mulch
    Current research at Bucknell University indicates that rubber leachate from car tires can kill entire aquatic
    communities of algae, zooplankton, snails, and fish. At lower concentrations, the leachates cause
    reproductive problems and precancerous lesions. A similar study exploring the use of tires as artificial
    reef substrates also found rubber leachate to negatively affect the survival of various seaweeds and
    phytoplankton. Marine and other saline environments are less sensitive to tire leachates, however, and the
    greatest threat of contamination appears to be to freshwater habitats.
    Part of the toxic nature of rubber leachate is due to its mineral content: aluminum, cadmium, chromium,
    copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, sulfur, and zinc have all been identified in
    laboratory and field leachates. If rubber products have been exposed to contaminants during their useful
    lifetime, such as lead or other heavy metals, they will adsorb these metals and release them as well. Of
    these minerals, rubber contains very high levels of zinc – as much as 2% of the tire mass. A number of
    plant species, including landscape materials, have been shown to accumulate abnormally high levels of
    zinc sometimes to the point of death. One USDA researcher who has studied zinc and other metals in
    soils and plant materials for decades strongly believes that ground rubber should not be used “in any
    composting, or in any potting medium, or casually dispersed on agricultural or garden soils” because of
    zinc toxicity. Acidic soils and aquatic systems are particularly sensitive, since heavy metals and other
    positively charged elements are less tightly bound to the soil and more available to plant and animal
    Rubber leachates are complex solutions. They include not only the minerals and organic building blocks
    of rubber, but also various plasticizers and accelerators used during the vulcanizing process. In high
    enough concentrations, some of these rubber leachates are known to be harmful to human health; effects
    of exposure range from skin and eye irritation to major organ damage and even death. Long term
    exposure can lead to neurological damage, carcinogenesis, and mutagenesis.
    Some of these materials break down quickly, while others are known to bioaccumulate. One of the more
    common rubber leachates is 2-mercaptobenzothiazole, a common accelerator for rubber vulcanization. In
    addition to its known human health concerns, it is highly persistent in the environment and very toxic to
    aquatic organisms: its environmental persistence may cause long-term damage to aquatic environments
    constantly exposed to rubber leachates. Another family of organic leachates under scrutiny are the
    polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These compounds, used as rubber softeners and fillers, have been
    repeatedly demonstrated to be toxic to aquatic life. PAHs are released continually into solution, and after
    two years in a laboratory test leachates were shown to be even more toxic than at the study’s inception.
    It is abundantly clear from the scientific literature that rubber should not be used as a landscape
    amendment or mulch. There is no question that toxic substances leach from rubber as it degrades,
    contaminating the soil, landscape plants, and associated aquatic systems. While recycling waste tires is
    an important issue to address, it is not a solution to simply move the problem to our landscapes and
    surface waters.
    The Bottom Line
    • Rubber mulch is not as effective as other organic mulch choices in controlling weeds
    • Rubber mulch is highly flammable and difficult to extinguish once it is burning
    • Rubber mulch is not permanent; like other organic substances, it decomposes
    • Rubber mulch is not non-toxic; it contains a number of metal and organic contaminants with
    known environmental and/or human health effects”

    Written, above, by Linda Chalker-Scott

  8. Great post Tara….
    I’m surprised this blog poopooed artificial turf though given how many anti-lawn nazis there are on here all the time.

    “Each project was chosen after many hours of analysis specific to the site and the client”?

    HUH? Why not just flip a coin or hold a sacred circle dance or conjure up Gaia and get her/it’s opinion

    You either want artificial turf or you don’t. If your client can’t make up their mind maybe they don’t need a landscaper but a shrink instead

    The TROLL

  9. Where did Americans get the idea that lawns are necessary to include in their surroundings? I think its a culture left from the European influence. The wealthier you are, the bigger the lawn. It’s a sign of affluence.

    Just look at the homes built recently by architects country wide….They are mostly set in natural settings, native to the area surroundings. Fake grass is not the only alternative to having no lawn! The key, I think, is grooming the plants that naturally grow in your area.

    I am not a fan of anything plastic in the garden. No landscape fabric either. If I live in the desert and want fake grass, then I am not facing the reality of my life situation. I live in the desert!

    As it is I live in California with a rich history of Spanish Ranchos and ranch houses and I see housing tracks filled with ‘Tuscan’ style homes. These folks want to live in Italy?? Why not have a California style home?

    It’s a free world and you can’t legislate poor taste. As for me, I’d just rather love and respect my native surroundings and go with the flow.

  10. but but but – if we cover the playgrounds with fake turf and generations grow up to think that it is normal then places with real grass and wildflowers will become extra precious. People might actually CARE about meadow and turf ecosystems.

  11. I thought the topic was artificial turf not rubber mulch ?

    Mr. Troll, You obviously have no clue as to the professional relationship of the client and the landscape design / installation professional . Tossing coins to make decisions is not part of the process, it may be in choosing a plant in your garden nursery but it is not done in our design office.

    Part of the analysis process involves understanding and specifying safe, affordable and site/ client specific products that solve a myriad of solutions.
    In several instances an artificial turf was installed for those who had mobility and other handicapped challenges. The faux turf was appropriate surface to roll or drag oneself across.
    There was nothing in poor taste about using a material that is going improve the quality of life of a human being.

  12. I think there is a place for it. A small area in deep shade that is reserved for the dogs–grass won’t grow there and the dogs would track in DG, dirt, mulch, and don’t like walking on gravel or crushed stone.

    It’s not something I would use as a lawn, but in a few instances it can be appropriate.

  13. This post brought to my mind the origins of golf, which is now played on huge, vast, heavily-chemicalized lawns. But it started out in Scotland played over the natural landscape of moors, sand dunes, over rocks, heathers and around all manner of natural obstacles, played in all kinds of weather. We turned it into a different game. So I’m fantasizing that in areas of the country that have non-lawn-friendly climates, games could be imagined that require surroundings that already exist, rather than creating artificial landscapes that are costly to maintain or create. Obviously my fantasy isn’t practical in this day and age on so many levels, but it’s worth thinking about how we got to where we require lawns in our landscapes. Ever notice how kids will play all kinds of sports in whatever environment they’re in, whether or not they have lawn?

  14. Compaction! Real grass can’t handle the compaction that overscheduled fields have and scheduling less hasn’t been an option for us. They are more expensive (approximately $600,000 for a standard field for us) than real lawn but allow for endless hours of play. In an urban area the citizens demand it. And for as much rain as we get, stone dust blows away and doesn’t get played on. But I don’t see why someone would want it in their yard! It’s so fake looking in the winter.

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