(Beyond Pesticides, November 1, 2023) As communities consider maintenance and renovation of their playing fields, it is not uncommon for synthetic (or artificial) turf to come up as an alternative to natural grass. Promoters of synthetic turf argue that it provides a solution to climate change, reduces water use and maintenance costs, and allows for year-round play. But is this true? Is synthetic turf an environmentally responsible alternative to its organic grass counterpart? An established and growing body of scientific evidence is demonstrating environmental and health risks with synthetic turf. In addition, there is growing concern for the safety of those playing on artificial grass, which has led to a call from the National Football Leagueâ€™s (NFL) Players Association to utilize natural grass on all 30 NFL stadiums after New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a season-ending Achilles tear in September and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce’s mid-game ankle injury.
Synthetic turf playing fields are reliant on polluting plastic (can contain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances-PFAS) and toxic pesticides for managing bacteria, mold and fungus, create contaminated water runoff, and cover over the natural environment, which is critical to preserving health and biodiversity, and averting climate disasters. Artificial fields can cost over $1 million for both the field installation, drainage system, and any additional costs for water treatment for an approximately ten-year lifespan, not including the game-day and ongoing maintenance costs. Manufacturers also recommend watering the synthetic field during the hottest time period because of the heat generated by the artificial material. The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) writes on synthetic turf: â€ś[T]he high surface-level temperatures recorded on these fields compared to natural turf have been well-documented. Since grass leaves release water vapor (or transpire) and the evaporation of that water vapor leads to cooling, grass fields rarely get above 100Â° F. [Synthetic] Turf fields, in comparison, regularly rise well above 100Â° F. Penn State Universityâ€™s Center for Sports Surface Research conducted studies comparing surface temperatures of synthetic turfs composed of various fiber and infill colors/materials and found that the maximum surface temperatures during hot, sunny conditions averaged from 140Â° F to 170Â° F. The high surface-level temperatures on synthetic fields can lead to dehydration, burns and blisters if exposed skin comes into contact with the hot surface, as well as heat stroke.â€ť Restricted play is advised when temperatures exceed 80Â° F.
Synthetic turf is widespread across the United States. According to a multi-federal-agency presentation, there were 12,000-13,000 synthetic turf fields in the U.S. in 2019, with 1,200 â€“ 1,500 new installations each year. Based on estimates, the global artificial turf market was valued at $8.1 billion in 2021, and it is expected to reach over $12 billion by 2027. Many of these fields have recycled tire crumb rubber, and a small fraction use coconut-based alternatives. According to Dan Bond, the president and CEO of the Synthetic Turf Council, “Over 90 percent of those fields have crumb rubber infill, and the other infills â€” the coconut, the EPDM, the virgin rubber, thermoplastics â€” are 1 to 2 percent.” Mr. Bond elaborated in an article by Athletic Business, “It’s a very small market share. It’s growing, but it certainly is not going to overtake crumb rubber in five years.”Â Typically produced from discarded tires, crumb rubber has been shown to contain carcinogens and heavy metals.
A groundbreaking study, The dark side of artificial greening: Plastic turfs as widespread pollutants of aquatic environments, has unearthed some disturbing revelations on the use of artificial turf, which has become a pervasive fixture on sports fields and playgrounds. This comprehensive study, prominently featured in the Environmental Pollution (June 2023) journal, has cast a spotlight on the dire consequences of plastic fibers from artificial turf, which are wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems.
The study has uncovered multiple entry points, such as river transport and stormwater runoff, where plastics and microplastics can enter watersheds. Once they make their way into the water, these fibers pose a menacing threat to marine life, leading to a host of health issues and, tragically, even mortality. These fibers also accumulate in sediments, compromising the overall health of aquatic ecosystems.
The authors of the study call for immediate intervention to tackle artificial turf pollution. The study authors indicate that plastic fields require enhanced waste management practices to staunch the plastic fibers from entering aquatic habitats. The results of this study serve as a call to policymakers, sports organizations, and the general public.
Communities discussing synthetic versus natural turf are faced with a number of issues that go to safety, environmental health, and cost. The chemicals used to manage synthetic turf for bacteria, mold, and fungus raise serious health issues and represent a threat that does not exist in organic land management. A builder of sports facilities, American Athletic, states, â€śBeyond surface cleaning, the artificial turf should be sanitized weekly or monthly to protect the playersâ€™ and coachesâ€™ health. This disinfection requires special solvents, cleansers, and anti-microbial products to remove invisible particles and bacterial growth. You should strive to sanitize the field after every game and throughout the school day if itâ€™s used for physical education classes.â€ť
When all the synthetic turf issues are considered, including chemical use, maintenance, heat effects, water contamination and treatment, playability and safety, organic turf offers an approach that checks all the critical boxes for protecting health and the environment at a competitive price. Organic management practices build soil health, cycle nutrients naturally, enhance turf resiliency, reduce water use, and do not use petrochemical pesticides or fertilizers. The organic alternative is central to a communityâ€™s discussion about its residents commitment to both the elimination of practices and products that are petrochemical-based and the ability of organically managed soils to draw down (sequester) atmospheric carbon, which contributes to mitigating global warming and erratic temperatures.
Learn more about how easy it is to create non-plastic and organic turf care. Prevent plastics from entering your local community with toxic and unsafe astroturf and artificial grass. Sign up to be a Parks Advocate today to encourage your community to transition to organic land management. Plan on attending Session 3 of the National Forum, Transformative Community-Based Change from the Ground Up: Managing Parks and Playing Fields with Organic Practices and Policies, on November 29, 2023, at 2:00 pm Eastern. Speaker and registration information HERE. This session is for all who want beautiful landscapes, parks, and playing fields without the reliance on petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers.Â The subject matter is cross-cutting and will inform people concerned about their health and community health, elected officials (from town, city, county, regional, state to school boards) interested in effecting movement away from toxic chemical reliance, and land managers and landscapers who work in parks and on playing fields and other landscapes.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.