Synthetic turf - the right pitch

As the Football League debates the pros and cons of its ban on synthetic surfaces, Hannah Jordan looks at the key issues.

The intensity of pitch use is held up as a benefit of using synthetic turf - image: Notts Sport
The intensity of pitch use is held up as a benefit of using synthetic turf - image: Notts Sport

Clubs and officials from the Football League were due to meet this week to resume the controversial debate over whether they should be able to replace natural turf pitches in the UK with synthetic surfaces.

Artificial turf was banned on competition-level pitches in the UK in 1988 due to the level of complaints over the severity of injuries and the poor playability of the pitches. But with improvements in surface production and maintenance techniques, lowerlevel league clubs are keen to see them implemented again, citing lower running costs and income-generating potential through community hire schemes as justification.

More than 70 clubs attended a meeting in November to discuss the ban, which to be overturned would require a majority vote from League and Championship members.

The talks prompted the Institute of Groundsmanship (IoG) to issue a statement voicing its concern about the replacement of natural turf with artificial on professional pitches, saying it would damage the UK's games and sports. It stated that artificial turf should not be seen as a means of saving on groundsmen and warned that the high levels of maintenance must not be underestimated.

The statement went on to suggest that the emergence of artificial turf, which is seen as a means of driving revenue, was linked to cutbacks and underinvestment in public sector grass roots pitches. More recently, at this month's British & International Greenkeepers Association Turf Management Exhibition in Harrogate, the IoG was among a partnership of sector leaders to launch a jointly developed website that demonstrates how to maintain synthetic surfaces properly (see box).

Online resource

But the IoG's involvement with the development of the website resource should not be seen as a support of synthetic pitches or, indeed, a move against the turf care sector in any way, says chief executive Geoff Webb.

"There has been a lot of misinformation about artificial turf so we have pulled all the information into an interactive website that can be used as a resource for groundsmen or facility holders to understand what it takes to maintain that type of surface and facility as a whole," he explains.

Webb says it is about raising the profile of synthetic surface care so that it is not mistakenly thought of as a maintenance-free product. "It is getting to a point where we are beginning to prove that the cost differentials are minimal," he adds. "This is great, because you have a stronger argument to be able to protect what you already have."

The IoG's focus is on balancing the argument and promoting natural turf for a wide variety of reasons, including environmental concerns, says Webb. Indeed, health and environmental factors are issues hotly debated among those in the natural and artificial turf industries.

A US report published in 1996 by the Turfgrass Resource Center lists a host of injuries related "directly to artificial turf and its inherent makeup and inflexibility". Improvements to synthetic products in the intervening years have arguably made such concerns less significant. Other of its findings remain of concern. For example, citing scientist Brad Fresenburg's studies, the report suggests artificial turf "is a breeding ground" for harmful bacteria and the potential cause of adverse reactions resulting from microfibre inhalation.

Campey Turf Care managing director Richard Campey says more questions need to be asked about the chemicals used in the manufacture of synthetic turf. "There are a lot of nasties in those fibres and I don't think enough research has been done," he maintains. "In the summer months, if the air temperature is 30 degsC the surface can rise to 30 or 40 per cent higher than that, which releases whatever chemicals are inside the artificial fabric. How does that affect the children and adults playing on them?"

He adds that before sports groups and community organisations are persuaded by the marketing of big artificial turf firms, they must be aware that synthetic surfaces will need to be relaid after 10 or 12 years, which will entail more resources.

Laverstoke Park Laboratories business development manager Richard Page says few lower level sports clubs would be able to see an economic return on their investment in the lifetime of an artificial pitch. With maintenance and specialist equipment to be factored in to the long-term care of a facility, he says, it can take around 10 years to make them pay.

Laverstoke undertakes research and development in soil biology and Page says that with the right nutrient balance and care it is more than possible to create a healthy, cost-effective grass playing surface that will outlast an artificial pitch. "There are a lot of groundsmen in clubs and local authorities producing excellent pitches for lower-level playing and they are doing it with next to no money," he points out.

"You need to undertake soil testing and get the right chemical balance to give you a healthy sward. If you have that you can reduce fertilisers and fungicides, which in turn will save money to reinvest into the facility," he adds.

According to Stephen Alderton, a director at seed breeder Top Green, advances in grass seed breeding mean that natural turf surfaces are the obvious solution. "Cultivars are now available that importantly require less cutting, are more disease tolerant and harder wearing," he says. "We know that these improved cultivars help to create great grass cover with the added significant benefit of reduced maintenance costs."

Environmental factor

Alderton believes that as a sports surface, natural turf is generally superior to artificial turf in playing characteristics and helps to reduce injury levels. He also insists that environmentalists should do everything possible to encourage use of natural turfgrass. "It's vital for our well-being because it filters and cleans our water, helps to neutralise carbon emissions and releases oxygen," he adds.

Putting the case for synthetics, Duncan Bennett, head of multi sport at synthetic pitch specialist Notts Sport, says most community clubs and sports groups may not have the time or resources to care for a natural surface. And although he acknowledges that artificial pitches do require their fair share of maintenance, he says with the right equipment synthetic surfaces are generally more straightforward to tend.

"I'd be surprised if anyone could argue that a well-designed synthetic pitch wouldn't support a greater intensity of use than a natural turf pitch. So for schools, community groups and grass-roots clubs it offers them a wider scope." But Bennett says anyone considering the investment, particularly budget-drained councils, must first be sure that there is adequate demand.

Bennett's thoughts are echoed by George Mullan, chief executive at playing surface provider Support in Sport. "We would all probably prefer to play on natural ground but unfortunately, particularly in schools or local clubs, a synthetic pitch makes perfect sense because you can use it from 8am to 8pm," he says. "It gives them flexibility and generates income for football clubs."

He says there is no dispute that synthetic surfaces are not environmentally perfect, but he points out the need for chemicals to treat natural grass. "Both sides must be very careful when they start shooting each other over environmental issues," he warns. "The bottom line is that natural is the preferred option but we mustn't bury our heads in the sand and ignore the need for synthetic."

In response, Tillers Turf managing director Tim Fell says: "The argument really is are you going to get more use out of an artificial surface or a natural one and undeniably in some local authority situations they need to provide as much opportunity for sport in as small a space as they can so in that situation I imagine there is little alternative to an artificial pitch.

"But if the consideration is not just the amount of hours played per week then a natural surface would be most people's first choice. Most people would prefer to play on a natural surface because it is more forgiving and more attractive to look at from a user point of view. From an environmental aspect there are dozens of reasons why natural surfaces should be the preferred surface. Not least for the fact that turf is a great natural drainage medium and in urban areas you would have thought people had learnt their lessons about hard surfaces.

"Now technology of artificial surfaces has moved on a pace, so too have the skills of the groundsmen to produce natural surfaces of a much higher standard than 10 years ago. It could be argued that the competition between the two has been good for the natural turf lobby in that standards of natural turf have had to rise to fight of the encroachment of the artificial side. Natural turf is far superior than 10 years ago with the skills and technology used in its maintenance."

Pitch care - Cost comparisons
European Seed Association (ESA) cost comparison between natural and
artificial pitches

Natural Natural grass turf Artificial
grass turf (+3% artificial) (+rubber infill)

Approximate 450 750 1,000-1,500
playing hours

Maintenance EUR8,000 to EUR10,000 to EUR10,000 to
costs EUR10,000 EUR15,000 EUR15,000

Total annual EUR16,500 to EUR39,000 to EUR75,500 to
costs (TAC) EUR26,000 EUR48,500 EUR90,000

TAC per EUR37-EUR58 EUR52-EUR65 EUR63-EUR75
hour of play

Source: ESA's Natural Turf: Why it Remains the Natural Choice for
Football, Sports & Playing Surfaces - Full
position paper published January 2012.

Website offers synthetic turf maintenance guide

An online resource for synthetic turf maintenance,, is being hosted by the Institute of Groundsmanship (IoG).

The website offers concise, practical maintenance guidance for groundsmen, bursars, managers and owners of synthetic facilities. It features a history of synthetic surface development, future progress and FAQs. It also includes video footage on:

- Surface selection and facilities best suited to specific needs.

- Where to get professional advice.

- Surface construction and lighting alternatives.

- Improving quality, life and economic return through effective maintenance.

- Training and education information.

The resource was developed in partnership with Abacus Lighting, BLc Sports, FieldTurf Tarkett, the IoG, Redexim Charterhouse and Replay Maintenance.

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