Is material use on turfgrass surfaces sustainable?

Sustainability focuses on the enduring nature of materials: If materials used on turfgrass surfaces are not, therefore, from renewable resources, it can be difficult to justify calling the consumption of these materials sustainable because the net result is a gradual reduction of limited supplies.

To address the practical issue of sustainability, the use of resources will typically need to be made more effective and efficient. The way to achieve this (after ensuring sustainable renewable materials are used wherever possible and practicable in the first place) will include:

  1. Refrain from using any non-renewable material inputs (by justifying the validity of material use; a financial analogy can be along the lines of zero based budgeting);
  2. Use more appropriate substitute materials (which are more environmentally benign yet still fit for purpose);
  3. Reduce existing material use by having more efficient and effective processes (this is linked to point 1);
  4. Reuse (material reused without having gone through a remanufacturing process);
  5. Recycle (where material is remanufactured into a new product).

Soil: Renewable resource or not?

There are finite, limited, natural resources that can be utilised for providing amenity and sports turf services. If a sustainable pathway is to be practiced then there is a need to consider how turfgrass surfaces can be managed with existing resources, without the need to extract large amounts of natural, non-renewable, materials: This will include sand, gravel, top-dressings, peat, fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation water as well as fuel.

This does not mean that businesses involved in the production and supply of these materials would become redundant, far from it, they would adapt to changing needs by utilising their existing infrastructure to supply material from substitutes, especially recycled glass, plastic, rubber – all of which has been already produced by society and treated as waste – yet it is waste that has untapped intrinsic value, but economic models either neglect to value or undervalue primary natural environmental resources making it cheaper to extract virgin material rather than recycle previously used material.

The demand made by society as a whole on natural resources has exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity; The Living Planet Report 2016 clearly illustrates the unsustainable demand societies are having on natural resources – consuming and utilising them at continuing alarming rates.


Without engaging with the (ecological) carrying capacity of turfgrass surfaces, in particular the wider impact of resource use within the production of turfgrass surfaces, the consequences of ignoring it will be a profoundly negative legacy that is passed onto future generations: We already see consequences of that today, with poorly managed sports surfaces due misunderstandings of the carrying capacity of different turfgrass surfaces and how this concept is effectively communicated to stakeholders so they better understand the impact it has on the quality of their playing experience and also their expectations from the surface. On a wider perspective, fewer and fewer people will experience an acceptable quality of life, including their local natural environment, when compared with today’s standard of living.

Definition: Carrying capacity –

“The maximum population of a given organism that a particular environment can sustain;… It implies a continuing yield without environmental damage. It may be modified by human intervention to improve environmental potential (e.g. by applying fertilizers to range-land and reseeding it with nutritious grasses).”
(Source: Allaby, M. (Ed.) (2005) ‘Oxford Dictionary of Ecology’, Oxford University Press)

More engaged thought processes are needed within the turfcare/grounds care industry to better explain and then determine how best to sustainably manage their products, i.e. the turfgrass surface – whether a sports surface or general amenity surface.

We need to actively question the meaning of sustainable, effective and efficient use of resources. Revisiting the five points above is a good starting place.

Chris Gray, 12th February, 2017