Pondering the future for artificial turf in 2023

By Michael Barnes

The long run of artificial turf flying under the radar of researchers, policymakers, and the public is officially over. Last year felt like a turning point in discussions around artificial turf among multiple stakeholders. On the research side, 2022 brought an estimated 157 new publications related to artificial/synthetic turf, the second-highest number of academic papers on the topic in a single year. Diversity is the keyword in these publications. Starting with geographic diversity, 2022 saw strong publications from Asia and Australia complementing those from the United States and Europe which have traditionally led research in artificial turf. Additionally, diversity continues when it comes to topics covered by researchers. The breadth of disciplines covered everything from traction studies in sports science, injury research from kinesiology, environmental toxicology on both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and user perceptions of artificial turf from a social science perspective. 

Policymakers have also taken notice of artificial turf, with some significant developments in new policies related to the surface. Most notably in the United States, citing public health concerns, the city of Boston banned new installations of artificial turf in city parks,. Other cities have also continued their artificial turf bans, demonstrating at least a small amount of staying power for these types of policies. Policies restricting the use of the artificial turf are also occurring internationally. In what would be a significant move, the United Kingdom government is considering a proposal to ban installations of artificial turf for new property developments, which would severely limit the growth of artificial turf installations. The policies already enacted and under consideration utilize a variety of research-driven findings related to artificial turf's environmental and human health impacts.

A recreational soccer match being played on an artificial turf surface.
Figure 1. A recreational soccer match being played on an artificial turf surface. Photo by: Michael R. Barnes

Finally, the public has started to understand with increasing clarity concerns around the safety of artificial turf in their communities. With the majority of artificial turf surfaces being used for sports fields (Figure 1), the concerns around its use centers around those children utilizing them as well as their parents. These concerns have elevated the discourse related to the safety of artificial turf for both athletes and the surrounding environment. Concerns of this type have led to installation moratoriums in communities around the United States, and decision makers pausing plans for field renovations.  In addition to the general public, professional NFL athletes backed by the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), which had begun voicing their concerns about artificial turf a few years ago after a number of high profile injuries, have now officially petitioned for a ban on artificial turf fields citing increased injury risk data. 

Taken together, 2023 is set up to be a critical year in the ongoing debate between artificial turf and natural turfgrass across researchers, policy makers, and the public. One vital component of these conversations will be the role of empirical data from across the world and crucially across the disciplinary spectrum as governments, schools, and sporting organizations make decisions about which type of surface they want and which they want to invest in for the long-term health and safety of their stakeholders.