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San Diegans Using Synthetic Grass To Conserve Water

But Some Critics Say Artificial Turf Hurts The Environment

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Aired 4/22/10

Drought and the increasing cost of water are reasons many San Diegans are pulling up their lawns and switching to alternatives like drought-tolerant plants and water-wise landscapes. One alternative is synthetic grass, but not everyone agrees it's the best choice.

Drought and the increasing cost of water are reasons many San Diegans are pulling up their lawns and switching to alternatives like drought-tolerant plants and water-wise landscapes. One alternative some people are using is synthetic grass, but not everyone agrees it's the best choice.

Diane Barnaba installed synthetic grass in the front and backyard of her home in Alpine.
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Above: Diane Barnaba installed synthetic grass in the front and backyard of her home in Alpine.

San Diegans spend a lot of time and money maintaining lawns. They also use a lot of water keeping those lush lawns green, but not Alpine homeowner Diane Barnaba.

Barnaba removed the natural grass in the front and backyard of her home. She replaced it with 750 square feet of synthetic grass.

"With the real grass, there was lots of gopher holes, tons of dirt, big dirt mounds," said Barnaba. "And although the dirt was great for plants it wasn't good for the yard. And then the biggest thing probably besides the gophers, were the rabbits. We had tons of rabbits coming in in the morning and at night grazing, eating all the grass down to the nub."

Barnaba re-landscaped the property four years ago, adding drought-tolerant plants, rock garden beds and the synthetic grass which covers a small section of her front yard and a portion of her backyard. She said the move has cut her water bills in half.

"And my husband's back was saved quite a bit because he didn't have to mow and weedwhack," said a laughing Barnaba.

Barnaba bought her synthetic grass from the Escondido-based company Easy Turf.

Easy Turf Regional Sales Manager Mark Radeke said the company's Field Turf product is a good substitute for natural grass.

"Our turf is extremely environmentally-friendly," said Radeke. "The infill for instance is, it's crumb rubber, it's recycled tires. For instance, to do a football field it takes 100,000 recycled tires. That's 100,000 tires that aren't sitting in a landfill somewhere. Plus the whole product is 100 percent recyclable. Besides that you're not putting nitrates, fertilizers, things like that into the ground. So it really is the perfect green alternative."

The recycled tires are used for cushioning.

Radeke said the synthetic green polyethylene grass blades are lead and toxic-free. Polyethylene is a type of plastic, the same material used in grocery bags.

He said the artificial turf gets a bit warm on days when the temperature reaches 90 degrees or higher. But a spritz of water on the synthetic grass with a hose drops that heat, at least temporarily.

Radeke also said the Field Turf is porous, so it allows water to soak through to the ground.

He said the average cost is roughly $8 to $14 per square foot depending on the type of turf, ground preparation and access issues.

Radeke said business has been brisk for the company in the past three years as the cost of water has climbed.

Some critics, however, argue an increase in artificial turf is bad for the environment.

"To me, artificial grass is just artificial," said Nan Sterman. "It doesn't belong in a garden. It's outdoor carpeting."

Sterman is the author of two books on California gardening and a proponent of drought-tolerant landscapes.

"Grass has some advantages," said Sterman. "Grass does take carbon out of the air, grass does cool the air, it does filter runoff and rainwater, etc. We just don't have enough natural rainfall to keep it going without a lot of artificial means. So, if you can't keep grass going without artificial means, why have artificial grass? It doesn't serve any purpose other than being a green carpet."

Sterman recommends using drought-tolerant plants and a combination of soil and other ground covering instead of synthetic or natural grass.

Dylan Edwards manages the Ocean Friendly Gardens program for the Surfrider Foundation. He said artificial turf does help conserve water, but Surfrider is concerned about runoff.

"But underneath that synthetic turf you have this really unhealthy compacted soil," said Edwards. "And so the rainwater comes down, hits the synthetic turn, a chunk of it gets absorbed. But a vast majority of it runs off into the streets and into the gully's, the storm drains and ultimately into the oceans."

He also said the turf absorbs sunlight.

"It's a petroleum product and that has some CO2 emissions related to it," said Edwards. "It also absorbs a ton of the heat from the sunlight here in San Diego. What it's actually working to do is creating this little heat island around our city. And, of course, that contributes a little bit to the overall global warming picture, but also forces folks to run up their air conditioning a little bit more."

Edwards said drought-tolerant and climate-appropriate plants are a better option because they absorb carbon and release oxygen.

For Diane Barnaba of Alpine and other homeowners, the synthetic turf preserves a slice of traditional green.

"The issue was mainly having the grass that felt real, I mean that was huge for me. And so having that and having a beautiful yard and not having to worry about a water bill especially nowadays, there was no question. I love it, it's perfect."

Comments

Avatar for user 'SyntheticTurfCouncil'

SyntheticTurfCouncil | April 22, 2010 at 10:33 a.m. ― 4 years ago

I'd like to correct some misinformation in this interesting article.
The average 1,800 square foot lawn uses 56,000 gallons of water a year to maintain -- saving that amount of a precious resource is a significant environmental benefit.
The EPA has identified runoff of pesticides and fertilizers as a principal cause of water pollution. On the other hand, numerous studies have validated that runoff from synthetic turf surfaces with crumb rubber infill is not harmful to sentinel species of aquatic life or the environment.
The EPA also warns about the pollution caused by a 3.5 horsepower lawnmower -- it releases the same amount of air polluting emissions in one hour as a new car driven 340 miles.
For more forthright information about synthetic turf, please logon to www.syntheticturfcouncil.org. Rick Doyle, President, Synthetic Turf Council

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | April 22, 2010 at 11:09 a.m. ― 4 years ago

I must agree with the Surfrider Foundation. Why put an expensive green rubber carpet outside?

Simply plant native species which are cheap and thrive in our climate with no additional watering needed above our natural rainfall.

That is the environmentally responsible and economical solution. When do both come together so easily? Grass, natural or artificial, is just so 1950's. Go native!

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Avatar for user 'turfdoctor'

turfdoctor | April 22, 2010 at 11:34 a.m. ― 4 years ago

Even considering that I work in the (natural) turf industry I agree with the others who would opt for native landscape. I suggest to use turf sparingly for backyard playing areas for kids, athletic fields, golf courses etc. but avoid the fake plastic grass for purely ornamental green color! Especially since a recent study at UC Berkeley has shown it is a contributor of CO2 emissions as was reported in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. See: http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/localnews/ci_14879819

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Avatar for user 'windswell'

windswell | April 22, 2010 at 11:44 a.m. ― 4 years ago

I found it funny that the rabbits and gophers got in the way of the beautiful lawn in Alpine--how dare they! Way to go by carpeting your yard with plastic and rubber--that will teach nature to try and invade your property.

For the plastic turf company, you may use recycled content in the liner but the blades are 100% virgin material. How toxic is that manufacturing process? Where and how are your small customers to recycle their lawn? Do they stuff it in their recycling bin at the curb?--I've even called about this and recycleable product is a false claim.

True that a artificial lawn reduces water, fertilizer, and pesticides, run off, and lawn mowing, but so do natives and drought tolerant plants. I believe that an artificial lawn sometimes has a place, but should only be used when alternatives aren't possible because they have a huge negative environmental impact depite what their marketing people might have you believe.

Great article KPBS!

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Avatar for user 'motoroto'

motoroto | April 23, 2010 at 10:17 a.m. ― 4 years ago

I think both sides are building up their claims way too much, especially those who favor xeriscape. Turf folks play it up as the panacea that will solve all lawn, water and runoff problems. It is appropriate in many circumstances but during intense rains if the turf itself doesn't have any toxic chemicals it will not leach and prevent fertilizer and herbicide runoff. However, the ground will likely not absorb much water.
On the other side, I find the claim that natural grass helps offset CO2 in the atmosphere, laughable. First, grass is a very minuscule store of CO2. Second, any carbon it does take in is released right back into the atmosphere as the grass dies. Third, in order to make a dent in CO2 concentrations with grass would probably require more water than we have in all of Cali. Fourth, the water used to grow natural grass has traveled hundreds of miles through pumps that also use electricity and probably negate any CO2 sequestration benefit. Finally, they propose switching to drought tolerant. What about people who want a green patch for their kids? Please enlighten me I wouldn't want to roll around in a cactus bunch or sunbathe on top of a manzanita or chaparral. What's better than grass (or turf) for doing that?

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Avatar for user 'MikeFreemen'

MikeFreemen | September 3, 2010 at 5:15 p.m. ― 3 years, 7 months ago

I definitely feel the same way Barnaba and her husband reacted to their new artificial lawn. Artificial grass poses huge benefits to consider. Although there are attributes that natural grass has over artificial grass, you can't deny the fact that this proves to be another alternative to consider. Many turf companies have done research to improve their turf products. For example, I've done much research through Synthetic Grass Warehouse http://www.syntheticgrasswarehouse.com that helped me make my decision on switching over. There was a lot of information such as new infill technology to reduce the amount of heat absorbed into the turf, discussed in the article above. There are many other informative resources, SGW is just one of them to help you at least consider this alternative solution.

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Avatar for user 'Huynguyen88'

Huynguyen88 | February 20, 2012 at 7:38 p.m. ― 2 years, 2 months ago

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Avatar for user 'Huynguyen88'

Huynguyen88 | February 20, 2012 at 7:40 p.m. ― 2 years, 2 months ago

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Avatar for user 'andrewfullerton'

andrewfullerton | July 11, 2012 at 10:38 p.m. ― 1 year, 9 months ago

Indeed fake grasses are the best alternative specially nowadays that we are experiencing climate change and water crisis.

However, we should also be aware of its disadvantage in order to create balance. In the end, its really boils down to our lifestyle choices.

Sometimes using synthetic materials can bring benefits because of their longer life expectancy. Properly disposing these materials after use should be done responsively. And as to water consumption concerns, I believe that artificial turf in San Diego is really for conservation because according to what I heard, almost 60% of water are saved annually.

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Avatar for user 'eliz'

eliz | April 4, 2013 at 3 a.m. ― 1 year ago

Drought and the increasing cost of water are reasons why many San Diegans are switching to alternatives like drought-tolerant plants and water-wise landscapes. San Diegans spend a lot of time and money maintaining lawns. They also use a lot of water keeping those lush lawns green. This is a nice piece of work and it has provided us with useful information . iehomeloans.com

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Avatar for user 'micheal'

micheal | March 29, 2014 at 12:30 p.m. ― 3 weeks, 5 days ago

I think it's great that people are using artificial grass to conserve water. It not only lowers your monthly water bill, but you are helping out the environment by saving our water supply. The earth only has a certain amount of usable water for consumption. We need to slow down our water usage as much as possible, until we find a solution to deal with the problem. I actually installed artificial grass myself in my own yard, found it at www.artificialgrassliquidators.com they have a lot of varieties, and it looks a lot better than it used to. I recommend it.

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