We seem to be getting better at making things that aren't real appear real. From Beyond Meat to porcelain tiles that effectively mimic marble, these reproductions sometimes offer benefits that improve on the real deal. Producing meatless meat is better for the environment, while porcelain tile is more durable than marble.
Fake grass has improved over time, too. Today's artificial turf is about as similar to that 1970s plastic stuff as a Beyond Burger is to the soybean patty school kids got from the cafeteria during that same era. In fact, artificial turf is so much more lifelike today that it's even become a viable option for residential lawns.
What Exactly Is Artificial Turf?
"Turf is polypropylene fiber that is tufted into a carpet," explains Iannick Di Sanza, marketing manager, Tarkett Sports. Di Sanza's company makes FieldTurf, the artificial turf that can be found under the cleats of the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots and Ohio State Buckeyes, to name just a few. Polypropylene is a type of plastic fiber also commonly found in everyday packaging like pill bottles and yogurt cups.
"Plastic carpet" pretty much describes artificial turf's early days. Released by Monsanto in the late 1960s, AstroTurf, the original artificial turf, was installed on the baseball field in Houston's Astrodome, writes Sports Illustrated. Within two years of the Astrodome installation, 3M's Tartan Turf was laid down at Michigan Stadium.
The trend for artificial turf fields grew, especially within the NFL. Although it was known among players for being unforgiving, artificial turf offered durability that natural turf did not. In the mid-1970s, a second-generation artificial turf featured longer fibers, a pad below and sand infill. The third-generation turf, created by FieldTurf, came along quickly, and according to research published by orthopedic surgeon James R. Jastifer and his colleagues, North America had more than 6,000 synthetic turfs installed by 2011, with roughly 1,000 to 1,500 new installations added annually.
Third-generation, or "infilled," artificial turf commonly begins with a choice of polyethylene fibers, which are monofilament, silt-film or a hybrid of the two. The fibers are tufted into a carpet, which is coated with a urethane or latex recipe. The carpet is rolled and shipped to the site, Di Sanza explains. Once it arrives, the turf is unrolled and glued or sewn together to create the field surface.
The next step is to add the infill. If you think of the carpet like strands of grass in the natural world, infill acts as the dirt. "One without the other doesn't perform," says Di Sanza. Consisting of two or three layers, today's infill is made up of sand – usually silica – and rubber that may come from recycled car tires. It's installed layer by layer by a spreader that acts somewhat like a salt truck on the highway. A brush tractor follows to smooth everything in.
Who's Using Artificial Turf?
Artificial turf today is found on a variety of fields for sports including football, soccer, baseball, softball, lacrosse and field hockey. You'll find it on indoor and outdoor fields. Its durability means it can stand up to use on multisport fields, like those at high schools, where many teams practice and the field sees nearly nonstop action. The 2015 Women's World Cup was played on artificial turf, but the 2019 one wasn't, nor will the 2023 one. You may even find a golf course with artificial turf, and not just of the mini variety.
In the era of concern over natural resources, artificial turf also has become a sustainable option for home lawns because watering is unnecessary, and maintenance is minimal, which means no pesticides or fertilizers. Architectural Digest touted its eco-friendliness in drought-ridden areas as early as 2010, and a look through Pinterest will bring up plenty of ideas for residential applications, from rooftop terraces to backyards to indoor feng shui. While sport turf manufacturers focus on safety, performance and durability, residential turf is more like a "plush carpet," says Di Sanza, with comfort and aesthetics driving development.
Artificial Turf Pros and Cons
Artificial turf offers multiple benefits — durability and sustainability top among them. Manufacturers are continuously innovating on products to answer criticism. Despite the constant innovation, artificial turf still sometimes gets a bad rap from athletes, who say that it increases the risk of injury. Many studies have been done to determine whether this is true.
In a 2018 study, Hiroyuki Nunome, a professor of biomechanics at Fukuoka University in Japan, stated that a number of studies have shown that there are "no clear differences for injury risk" between natural and third-generation artificial turf, however, he also explained that a "considerable gap still exists for the stress-strain property between natural and third generation artificial turfs." In artificial turf's favor, Nunome found that third-generation turfs can become harder over time and that some of these studies were being conducted on turf as old as eight years, which happens to be the same length as FieldTurf's standard warranty.
Whether it's soft enough or not, as anyone in the South who has played on artificial turf knows, it can get hot enough to feel it through your cleats. FieldTurf has developed a response to that issue too, which is a product with a cork layer to absorb heat and shock.
"Just about every field in Texas now has Coolplay," says Di Sanza. "It really helps reduce the heat."
In addition to concerns by athletes, other turf criticism comes from advocacy groups who worry about possible risks caused by the chemicals in the infill. However, according to a report from FieldTurf, more than 90 technical studies and reports have been performed since 1990 "by leading universities, toxicologists, and government agencies" that have considered a variety of health and safety questions about the use of recycled rubber.
"These studies and reports have failed to find any link between recycled rubber infill and cancer or any other human health risk," states the TurfField report. Some of the most recent studies include one by the Washington Department of Health and another by the Dutch government.
If opinions vary about artificial turf, it could be due to the wide variation in types of turf, level of maintenance, amount of use and even the installation process. It's likely that the condition of the artificial turf at the local high school will not compare to what players find at major stadiums.
While it doesn't need to be watered, artificial turf does require maintenance, including brushing and aerating, and infill must be kept at the right level, notes Di Sanza. Beyond maintenance, stadiums that can afford to might update their surface every couple of years. Take for example, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, home to the NFL Falcons and the MLS Atlanta United. Open for just two years, the stadium has already swapped out its Revolution 360 turf – Super Bowl LII was played on it – for CORE, FieldTurf's newest product, which offers a multilayer dual-polymer monofilament for a "more realistic, textured, grass-like shape," according to the company's website.
"There's good turf and there's bad turf," says Di Sanza. "You need to have the right amount of infill to protect. A good install team has such a huge impact on the long-term durability of the field."