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Literature Review: Synthetic Turf carbon footprint, environmental, health, microplastics and biodiversity impacts


Hosken Reserve: grass oval used for soccer training, informal recreation, off-lead dog exercise
Hosken Reserve: grass oval used for soccer training, informal reacreation, off-lead dog exercise
(Photo by John Englart)

Abstract: 

The conversion of a grass oval to synthetic turf at Hosken Reserve, Coburg North, is about a failure in transparency and consultation with the local community, and poorly framed triple bottom line decision making by Moreland Council. There are questions about the integrity of the triple bottom line decision making embracing the social, environmental and economic impacts, costs and benefits, that was used in the process in the past decade for this site. And there are questions how triple bottom line decision making and weighting of factors will be applied for the current process. 

This literature review provides numerous reasons why conversion of a natural grass oval and open space to a fenced synthetic soccer pitch should not take place. It finds that there are two primary reasons against synthetic turf at Hosken Reserve, and that either reason is significant in itself for the primary project not to go ahead. These two essential reasons are – synthetic turf carbon footprint (up to 1500 CO2e tonnes) in total life cycle greenhouse gas emissions, and synthetic turf increasing waste to landfill contributing to toxic leachates pollution and microplastics pollution. On both these grounds conversion of a shared use natural grass oval to synthetic turf would appear to conflict with existing Council policy and frameworks related to climate change and the climate emergency, and Council’s zero waste to landfill by 2030 target. 

On the triple bottom line factors we found the social factors weighed up with some positive and some negative, the environmental factors were mostly against, and the economics didn’t stack up, even after factoring in 2 to 1 equivalence usage factor for synthetic turf. This review investigated peer reviewed science, grey literature and relevant policy documents to ascertain the following issues with synthetic turf::


  1. Derived from fossil fuel petrochemical industry
  2. Produces greenhouse gas emissions during manufacturing and as it degrades
  3. Increases landfill at end of life
  4. Produces microplastics pollution
  5. Increases urban heat island effect on local residents.
  6. Replaces natural grass which allows soil organic carbon sequestration, provides oxygen
  7. Reduces soil biota, grass seeds and insects with a trophic impact on local biodiversity primarily birdlife.
  8. Compacts the soil increasing stormwater runoff
  9. Toxic Chemical leachates from rubber infill pollute waterways
  10. Results in increased lower extremity injuries in elite players
  11. Long term human health impacts uncertain, but vertebrate model confirms toxicity to human health of rubber infill leachates
  12. Enhances infection transmission risk. Encourages a microbial community structure primarily defined by anthropic contamination. 
  13. Appears to improve water conservation, but the situation is far more complex when life-cycle assessment and irrigation to reduce heat for playability is taken into account
  14. Other issues: increased fire risk, increase in traffic, parking on quiet residential streets

The Climate Action Moreland full submission to Moreland Councillors and Hosken Refresh Consultation can be downloaded in PDF format (27 March 2021). This contained extra information regarding Hosken Reserve and Moreland Couuncil.  The version below has extra references and minor updates but focuses on the science.

This document was researched and prepared by John Englart, Convenor of Climate Action Moreland and was subject to peer review by group members and other active members in the Moreland climate community.

Publication Date: 15 April 2021 

DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.28126.56646

Suggested Citation: Englart, J (2021), Literature Review on environmental and health impacts of synthetic turf., Climate Action Moreland, DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.28126.56646

The change in General social context with a climate and biodiversity emergency

Over the last 6 years since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2015 and especially the last 3 years, there has been a substantial contextual social change regarding multiple global crises that also manifests at the local level: climate change, biodiversity loss, plastics pollution. These need to be given weighting as accords their rise in social importance in triple bottom line decision making. 

In April 2018 when  the Sports Surface Needs Analysis (Moreland Council April 2018) was presented and adopted by Moreland Council there was not widespread concern that we had a climate emergency, a biodiversity extinction emergency, a microplastics pollution crisis within the chambers and offices of Council. These issues were all there, but hadn’t made it to the top priority. I raised a hastily prepared public question on urban heat impact of synthetic turf when that report was presented. I received a response that this would be considered as part of any specific project.

The last 3 years has seen a substantial change in the general context. There are far more scientific and policy papers warning of the triple crises confronting us. 

In September 2018 Moreland Council voted to declare a climate emergency. This was a significant turning point in Council that addressing the climate challenge needed to be front and centre in all decision making by Council.

In October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its Special Report on 1.5C of Global Warming (IPCC 2018) which delineated the need for strong and rapid action at all levels of Government and business decision making to avoid catastrophic climate outcomes.

In 2019 the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published The global assessment report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. (IPBES 2019) Climate Action Moreland highlighted this report in our submission to the Draft Moreland Nature Plan to be included as part of the international context regarding threats to biodiversity loss in Moreland. This report highlights that nature and ecosystems have deteriorated worldwide, with the process accelerating in the last 50 years. 

We need to make transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability.(Díaz, S. et al. December 2019)

The United Nations Environment Program report Making Peace with Nature published February 2021 (UNEP 2021) outlines the extent of the climate, biodiversity and plastics pollution problems and the solutions to tackle them from a top level global policy viewpoint. 

For many years we have been aware of the problem with plastics. Many of them are marketed as recyclable, when in fact only a small proportion of plastics do have a recycling process established, according to a PBS documentary on Plastic Wars broadcast on Four Corners (PBS Frontline production, August 2020). 

The plastics that aren’t recycled end up in landfill where they slowly degrade into smaller and smaller pieces until they become microplastics. Plastic and microplastics is now a considerable problem for ocean ecosystems and comparable to the climate crisis in many ways argues Ketan Joshi (2021) and researchers at the University of Tasmania (Komyakova et al 2020). Moreland Council got on board with a single use Plastic wise policy in April 2019 (Moreland Council 2019).

This change in general social context should require better weighting of environmental factors in triple bottom line decision making about synthetic turf at Hosken Reserve.

Here are detailed reasons why synthetic turf should not proceed at Hosken Reserve or in the 8 other locations recommended in the Hybrid and Synthetic Sports Surface Needs Analysis (2018). 

The rest of this article outlines the environmental and health impacts and risks of conversion of a natural grass sporting field presently shared by the community and local organised sport.

1. Synthetic turf a child of the fossil fuel based plastics and petrochemical industry

The report prepared for FIFA highlights that synthetic turf is mostly fossil based materials. (Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd 2017). The environmental context is that we need to transition off using fossil fuel manufactured products due to the embedded carbon emissions as rapidly as possible. The plastics and petrochemical industry are a derivative of fossil fuels – oil and gas. 

Plastics are estimated “to make up around 9% of oil demand measured in mbpd (less if measured in tonnes), but are the largest component of oil demand growth.” They are seen widely in the oil sector as a growth area. (Carbon Tracker 2020)

Professor Alice Mah articulates that the oil and petrochemical companies seek to pivot their business models to encompass the ‘circular economy’ and ‘sustainability’ criteria and the problem that poses in regard to increased resource use and growth model. (Mah 2020) 

Plastics are a reservoir and transport mechanism for carbon, but have not been adequately considered as part of the carbon cycle and the problem of climate change and the climate crisis. (Xi 2021). Australian energy analyst  Ketan Joshi compares the plastics crisis is to the climate crisis highlighting the problem we have with plastics and microplastics pollution, especially in waterways and oceans. (Joshi 2021)

While synthetic turf products, including synthetic grass, are marketed as “recycleable”, like many plastics they are not recycled but instead disposed of mostly to landfill due to the exorbitant costs and energy in setting up a recycling stream process. PBS Frontline video documentary, rebroadcast on Four Corners, investigates the hype and marketing spin behind plastics and its marketing as products that are recycled. Nothing seems different with synthetic turf… (PBS Frontline 2020)

2. Produces greenhouse gas emissions during manufacturing and as it degrades

Lifetime CO2 is estimated at an average of 5 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of plastics. It also imposes a massive “untaxed externality upon society of at least $1,000 per tonne ($350bn a year) from carbon dioxide, health costs, collection costs, and ocean pollution….plastic is responsible for roughly twice as much carbon dioxide per tonne as oil.” (Carbon Tracker 2020) 

For Moreland Council a decision to avoid conversion of natural grass to synthetic turf is a substantial carbon and externality cost saving.

I have found two full Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) analysis that include a life cycle greenhouse gas emissions estimate: a Canadian study from 2006 (Meil and Bushi 2006) and a Swedish study from 2017 (Magnusson and Macsik April 2017). There is also a comparative assessment of total life cycle emissions in the 2017 report to FIFA, but this lacks information on data and methodology with no references as to source.(Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd for FIFA, March 2017)

The Canadian study estimated greenhouse gas emissions for a single field for a 10 year lifetime at 55 ton CO2e, but assumed full recycling. Without the recycling this would likely be > 100 tonne CO2e.  I could not find any peer review process for this study, so classified it as Grey literature. 

The Swedish study was peer reviewed and gave a lifetime greenhouse gas estimate of  527 ton CO2 equivalents for an average soccer pitch. This study concluded total energy use was 5.9GJ and the GHG emissions was 527 ton CO2 equivalents. The authors point out that these totals can vary with a factor of 1.5 and 2.2 respectively depending upon the infill type chosen, and method of disposal whether incineration or landfill (both are problematic for a closed loop circular economy which Moreland is aiming for). The study also raised some concern over leachates.(Magnusson and Macsik 14 April 2017)

In the 2017 report prepared for FIFA – Environmental Impact Study on Artificial Football Turf – there is a comparative chart showing the CO2e total life cycle emissions for various infills, but no source or methodology is given for this data.(Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd for FIFA, March 2017) Note that very limited recycling takes place globally, even in Europe according to multiple reports. (See Zembla September 2018, Lundstrom and Wolfe December 2019). 

According to this report a FIFA standard pitch is 7526 square metres. The graph shows the SBR crumbed rubber infill synthetic turf pitch produces 200 kg CO2e total life cycle emissions per square metre. Cork infill pitch would be similar. This equates as 1505.2 tonnes CO2e for a full pitch. This is the best case scenario for a synthetic pitch for either landfill or incinerator disposal. This is three times the 2017 Swedish study greenhouse gas  assessment. (Magnusson and Macsik 14 April 2017)

Image from Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd for FIFA, (March 2017): “Figure 8 shows the results of a comparison between different formulations of turf, each containing one of the five main infill types, for each of the potential disposal routes. It displays the greenhouse gas (or ‘carbon’) emissions over the life of each product per square meter installed. Although there are

many ways to indicate and compare the environmental impact, carbon emissions are given as an example that is broadly representative of many of the other environmental impacts such as air pollution or toxicity in humans or ecosystems. This life cycle includes the raw materials, manufacture, transport, installation, maintenance and disposal options at the end of life.” Note: very limited recycling takes place, even in Europe. 

Greenhouse gas emissions alone is reason enough for Moreland not to proceed with the conversion of the natural grass oval at Hosken Reserve to synthetic turf. Moreland has declared a climate emergency which highlights that reduction of emissions is a priority. The natural grass oval is likely minimal emissions, depending on the level of the maintenance regime. There is a great deal of research on urban lawns and grasslands sequestering Soil Organic Carbon, although grass sporting fields due to regular restoration work are unlikely to act as a carbon sink. This doesn’t negate their role in producing oxygen and other environmental services.  Now is not the time to be increasing Council emissions from a new synthetic sports field. 

If Moreland does proceed with synthetic field installation, it then needs to publicly explain how these emissions will be properly and entirely mitigated in its Moreland Zero Carbon Framework. 

Climate Action Moreland believes on the Greenhouse gas emissions issue alone Hosken Reserve conversion to synthetic turf should not proceed.

3. Increases landfill at end of life

A report done for the global soccer federation – FIFA, highlights lack of recycling and reuse, usually landfill used for disposal. All synthetic turf in Australia currently ends up in landfill. The report also noted that the “majority of the manufacturers interviewed for this study claimed their products are ‘recyclable’, but none are taking significant steps to make sure this happens in practice.” (Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd for FIFA, March 2017)

PBS Frontline production (August 2020) highlights the extent of the ‘recycling’ spin used by plastics manufacturers as part of their marketing when recycling of most plastics is simply not cost effective at scale, hence landfill being the cheapest form of disposal.

Old synthetic turf matt destined for landfill (Photo by John Englart)
Old synthetic turf matt destined for landfill (Photo by John Englart)

A standard FIFA sized pitch containing SBR infill could weigh around 274 tonnes for disposal at end of life. This consists of the polyethylene fibres, the polyurethane plastic matting, the SBR rubber and sand infill, all of which would need separation into different streams to make recycling of some of the materials possible.

If we look overseas, Marjie Lundstrom and Eli Wolfe did an investigative journalism article published at Fair Warning highlighting the lack of any recycling of synthetic turf in North America and the growing problem of used synthetic grass as landfill along with associated rubber infill. (Lundstrom and Wolfe December 19, 2019)

In Europe Investigative Journalism team Zembla probed the end of life disposal of synthetic turf, highlighting the extent of the problems. This highlights that even in Europe where there is some recycling of artificial turf, much of it is stockpiled as landfill left to cause pollution by companies contracted to recycle. (Zembla September 2018)

Sport and Recreation Victoria (Feb 2011) ignores the problem of synthetic turf in landfill and the emissions and microplastics this creates.

If Moreland does proceed with synthetic field installation, it then needs to publicly explain how the synthetic turf will be recycled or kept out of landfill as per the current Moreland Council Waste and Litter Strategy which includes a zero waste to landfill target by 2030. This product responsibility for disposal should not be passed onto a contractor.

Climate Action Moreland believes that on end of life disposal of synthetic turf and its conflict with existing Council Waste and Litter Strategy and 2030 zero waste to landfill target, is the second complete reason not to proceed with a conversion of a natural grass field to synthetic pitch.

4. Produces microplastic pollution

The report prepared for FIFA in 2017 outlined the microplastic problem as “More recently plastic infill (including SBR, TPE and EPDM) has been identified as a possible source for microplastic marine pollution. Infill can get washed away during rain or stick to clothing and boots before being put in a washing machine. … It is estimated that 1–4% of plastic infill is lost and replaced every year.” (Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd for FIFA, March 2017)

The impact of Microplastics has been mostly articulated as an environmental risk for aquatic environments, but it also impacts terrestrial environments. A study of synthetic infill Ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM), a microplastic used in some artificial sport turfs, affected the growth and survival of native grasses located close to a sporting pitch. With EPDM at  concentrations of 5% and higher contamination strong negative effects on plant survival and growth were seen. (van Kleunen et al 2020)

Another study highlights that microplastics polluting soils has a range of possible impacts including: altering the physicochemical properties of the soil; Altered soil structure could impact plant community composition; cause toxicity in plants directly through uptake via roots; impact nutrient cycling by altering the C: N ratio of the soil; thermal properties of microplastics could create a microclimate in the root zone in the soil. (Khalid et al 2020)

A recent literature review – Microplastics and Nanoplastics in the Freshwater and Terrestrial Environment: A Review – provided a thorough introductory summary of the microplastics and nonoplastics issue, and some overview of regulatory arrangements. It provided detail on impacts on freshwater and terrestrial ecosystem health and raised questions about implications for human health.

“Once there is intestinal uptake of microplastics, the reality is that the particles can then be transported throughout the body and accumulate in organs and tissues. Alarmingly, microplastics are not normally discussed as being capable of penetrating the gastro-intestinal tract; however, these studies have found that microplastics <75 μm are very capable of accumulating within the body. These early findings suggest that there is a potential threat to human health, but more research needs to be conducted to shrink the knowledge gap.”

“Nanoplastics pose a more significant threat to biota than microplastics due to their increasingly small size. It is well known that plasticides are capable of penetrating cell membranes and nanoplastics are also capable of this. Both nanoplastics and plasticides have the potential to enter and accumulate in every part of any organism…..Most alarmingly, the blood-brain barrier was breached in Japanese rice fish, and such a breaching poses extreme health risks to all animals and humans.”(Boyle and Örmeci, Sep 2020)

Ran Li in a Master’s thesis identified the problems in tracking Microplastics from artificial football fields to Stormwater systems in Sweden. (Li 2019) Microplastics from artificial turfs have been recognised as the second most important source of Microplastic emission in Sweden with between 1640 to 2460 tons per year lost from artificial turfs.

Due to the extent of the microplastics pollution problem in Europe the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has proposed a ban on Microplastics, according to a December 2020 Reuters report.

ECHA “ has proposed a microplastics ban on products such as cosmetics, cleaning and laundry products, fertilisers, plant protection products and seed coatings, but adding the largest single source of emissions – turf pitches – to the list implies a significantly higher total cost, it concluded.

Artificial sports pitches release up to 16,000 tonnes of microplastics into nature each year and so the ECHA said their sale should either be banned after a six-year transition period or cheaper measures should be made mandatory to help mitigate the problems, such as fences or brushes.” (Reuters Dec 2020, ECHA Dec 2020)

Synthetic turf at landfill will slowly degrade and breakdown into smaller plastic particles and microplastics. This will generate the powerful greenhouse gas emissions of methane and ethylene as the plastic degrades. (Royer et al August 2018). 

There is another problem. As the plastic breaks down it forms a ‘hacky structure’ which provides a vector for organic contaminants and heavy metals. The microplastics then transport these contaminants or enrich them in biota, “thus imposing major impacts on human health and ecosystems (Bouwmeester et al, 2015)….”. This could enhance the environmental risk of leachate discharged to the environment.  (Su et al 2019)

University of Tasmania researchers highlight the extent of the problem of marine microplastics and the various sources, although they do not list as a problem the growing trend of artificial sports fields or school artificial surfaces. See reports by Komyakova et al (2020)

A recent news report from Sydney highlights the extent of plastic fibres and rubber infill pollution: “New research by the Australian Microplastic Assessment Project (AUSMAP) with Northern Beaches Council, funded by NSW’s Environment Protection Authority, has found 80 per cent of the waste entering stormwater drains was black crumb (recycled tyres used for the base of these fields) and microplastics from astroturf – compared to 5 per cent in areas without these playing fields…. USMAP director of research Dr Scott Wilson said they were “definitely finding a proliferation of the crumb and some grass” particularly when many games had been played and after wet or windy weather.” (Power 14 March 2021)

Moreland Council is aware of the problem of plastics and microplastics pollution adopting a Plastic Wise policy for all Council organised events and festivals, including Sporting Clubs using Moreland Council Facilities (Moreland Council, 10 April 2019) It provides a sharp contrast to the Sport and Recreation Department drive to convert natural grass sporting fields to plastics based synthetic surfaces.

5. Increases urban heat island effect on local residents.

 We know that “Global warming exacerbates the urban heat island effect in cities and their surroundings, especially during heatwaves, increasing people’s exposure to heat stress.” (UNEP February 2021)

A new report published March 2021 highlights the increasing temperatures in Australian cities, including Melbourne, and the growing impact of the urban heat island effect on liveability.. 

It does not mention the role of synthetic surfaces that add to urban heat, but advises that putting in place green infrastructure to address growing urban heat takes time, early action is essential. Extreme and average maximum temperatures are projected to increase, the number of days over 35C will increase. This will reduce useability of synthetic surfaces unless water is used for temporary cooling, which then reduces the justification for synthetic turf providing a water saving. Natural grass sporting oval as open space is important for limiting urban heat island impacts at Hosken Reserve. (Monash Climate change Communication Research Hub March 2021)

The Urban Heat Island Effect impact will be felt mostly strongly by local residents. Artificial turf elevated temperatures will affect playability, and not only in Summer but sometimes for days both in Spring and Autumn when the temperature is elevated. Surface temperatures of the turf may be elevated well into the evening according to Loveday (2019). Local residents will particularly be impacted by this extended surface heat of the artificial turf into the evening contributing to keeping the canopy air temperature high and negating any Cool Park Effect right when they are hoping to open their houses to cool them down. The Sports Surface Needs Analysis (2018) said buried in the detail as 8.6 about ‘Urban Island Heat Effect’: “Council needs to consider the effects in the future”. Council’s own Urban Heat Island Effect Action Plan (Moreland Council 2016) was not listed as a strategic document to inform this report. Urban heat island impact was never mentioned in the executive summary of this report nor in the Council Officers report, despite the existence of Council’s Urban Heat Island Action Plan.

For background on how climate change and heatwaves are amplifying the urban heat island effect and the social, environmental impacts for Melbourne the 2015 literature review and annotated bibliography: Climate change and heatwaves in Melbourne – a Review, is an excellent resource to investigate further. (Englart 2015)

The Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research (VCCCAR) which was funded to 2014 stated in a policy paper on responding to the urban heat island  regarding synthetic turf:

“Not all Green Infrastructure is ‘Green’

A concern raised during this study was the suggestion by a number of interviewees that there is increasing use of artificial turf or grass on private and council-owned lands, because it is perceived to be ‘environmentally friendly’. One industry representative stated that they don’t call artificial turf ‘green’ infrastructure “because you can paint a wall green, but that doesn’t make it sustainable”.

Several interviewees argued that artificial turf is therefore not GI, even when coupled with underlying water retention tanks or other mechanisms. Although often portrayed as a solution to limited water availability, the literature suggests that artificial turf is not as green or eco-friendly as may have been claimed. McNitt et al (2008) state that “surface temperatures of synthetic turf are significantly higher than natural turfgrass surfaces when exposed to sunlight, with traditional synthetic turf being as much as 35-60°F higher than natural turfgrass surface temperatures”. Additionally, Claudio (2008) refers to work by Stuart Gaffin of the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University, stating that “synthetic turf fields can get up to 60°F hotter than grass, with surface temperatures reaching 160°F on summer days” and concludes that the fields rival black roofs in their elevated surface temperatures.” (Bosomworth et al 2013)

The McNitt study, one of several from Pennsylvania State University, on the heat retention of synthetic turf, concluded that synthetic turf was found to have substantially higher surface temperatures than natural turfgrass. It suggests there are benefits in cooling synthetic surfaces with irrigation to reduce heat retention when needed, although that comes with the cost of installing irrigation. Water cooling would reduce the water savings benefit of synthetic turf that is often used as a justification for synthetic turf installation. (McNitt et al 2008).

Graph from  Yaghoobian et al 2010

A related study from Penn State assessing whether different fibre colours would make a difference to surface temperatures concluded that “No product in this test substantially reduced surface temperature compared to the traditional system of green fibers filled with black rubber in both the indoor and outdoor test. Reductions of five or even ten degrees [Fahrenheit. This equates to 2.77°C – 5.55°C] offer little advantage when temperatures still exceed 150° F [65.55° C]. Until temperatures can be reduced by at least twenty or thirty degrees [Fahrenheit. This equates to 11.11°C – 16.66°C] for an extended period of time, surface temperature will remain a major issue on synthetic turf fields.” (Pennsylvania State University Center for Sports Surface Research 2012)

Detailed Thermal modelling of artificial turf  in an urban environment in southern California found “Using a simple offline convection model, replacing grass ground cover with artificial turf was found to add 2.3 kW h m -2 day -1 of heat to the atmosphere, which could result in urban air temperature increases of up to 4C.” (Yaghoobian et al 2010)

“The largest sensible heat flux from ground to canopy occurs over AT (Fig. 9). The reasons are high surface temperature (Fig. 5a), lack of water availability (unlike grass), and higher surface roughness (than asphalt and concrete; Table 1). Hence AT increases the canopy air temperature (Fig. 5b). (Left: Fig 5 shown)

The associated decrease in building wall-to-canopy sensible heat fluxes increases building wall temperatures and wall conductive heat fluxes.” reports Yaghoobian et al. This study has implications for surface heating of adjacent buildings, but that is a small impact for Hosken Reserve. 

This study did not investigate the increase in Canopy air temperature on urban heat island temperatures which is most prominently an enhanced night time effect. As canopy air temperatures are heated during the day with less atmospheric mixing at night to conduct the ambient heat away it is likely night time temperatures in the local vicinity will be elevated due to the synthetic turf.

Research in Hong Kong highlighted that high air and surface temperature of artificial turf raises concerns on player health. Artificial turf with low specific heat and moisture incurs fast heating and cooling. The study identified cooler periods fit for matches on sunny, cloudy and overcast days. The study highlighted that Synthetic turf surface on a sunny day heated to 72.4 °C compared with natural grass at 36.6 °C. The synthetic turf dissipates heat by conduction and convection to near-ground air and by strong ground-thermal emission. The study found that the artificial surface exceeded the heat-stress threshold most of the time, but it cooled quickly from late afternoon for heat-safe use soon after sunset. (Jim 2017)

A Perth based study on the urban heat island effect of various surfaces, including turfgrass and synthetic turf, included a focus on change in evening surface and air temperatures. The study correctly notes that the urban heat island effect is most prominent as a night time impact, although it also is seen during the daytime. The research also highlights this is an issue beyond summer season and may include Spring and Autumn days when temperatures are elevated. This trend will only continue with rising temperatures associated with climate change. Perth average temperatures give a glimpse of Melbourne’s  future. For evening temperature change artificial turf surface temperatures will cool through convection of the heat to the atmosphere (lowering surface temperatures) but thus keeping the ambient air temperature high. This accentuates the night time impact of the urban heat island effect. This will especially impact local residents around a synthetic field, but is also be relevant to potential player heat stress from elevated ambient air temperatures (Loveday et al 2019)

Graph from Loveday et al 2019

Melbourne climate researchers identified issues with urban heat island effect hotspots for Melbourne, and that the UHIE is predominantly a night time effect, measuring this night time temperature difference. The authors used an urban climate model, The Air Pollution Model (TAPM), to simulate the UHI intensity of 3–4 °C at 2 a.m. in January. Results for summer showed increased housing density results in increased intensity of night time UHI with growth areas and activity centres particularly affected. The model was calibrated against observational data from medium density Preston, a residential neighborhood in Melbourne’s north. This was used to assess where urban planning should best be applied to mitigate UHI to improve local climates and identified in particular activity centres and growth areas. The research doesn’t specifically cite what role synthetic turf has in adding to night time ambient air canopy temperatures. (Coutts et al 2008)

Researchers from the University of Western Sydney have been actively researching in recent years urban heat impacts especially for playgrounds and schools. While no artificial sporting fields are considered so far, the research on playground and school artificial surfaces is still highly relevant.

“Assessment of surface temperature of different materials in full sunshine revealed that artificial grass and bare soil were the hottest surfaces, regardless of ambient temperatures (Table 8). Sunlit artificial grass reached a mean temperature of 52°C during the normal summer day despite the air temperature being below 30°C. The surface temperature of artificial grass increased when ambient air temperatures rose and a maximum value of close to 70°C was measured for this material.” says the report.

One of the recommendations of the report is that “Use of artificial grass should be avoided or restricted to areas with zero exposure to direct sunshine.” (Pfautsch S., et al Sept 2020) This study built upon the work of an earlier report on Cool Schools (Madden et al 2018). It also is part of a collection of studies on impact of various surfaces and tree canopy on air temperature in Western Sydney (Pfautsch et al Oct 2020) 

A recent news article in Sydney raised urban heat and plastics pollution issue of synthetic fields, with the NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes asking his department to investigate sustainable alternatives to synthetic grass. One of the climate researchers specialising in heat in urban environments commented: “I absolutely loathe synthetic grass,” said Dr Pfautsch, “It is possibly the worst materials for heat and it is made from completely unsustainable, non-recyclable plastic that goes straight to landfill.” (Power March 2021)

Temperatures of sites around Moreland, including the synthetic pitch at Clifton Park, were measured on a 30C day in November 2020. The synthetic turf spot temperature ranged  up to double the temperature of natural grass. (Englart, 2020)

The present grassed oval at Hosken Reserve would contribute to a park cooling effect for the local area, moderating urban heat island temperatures. A study on the cooling impact of parks (or park cooling effect) in moderating the Urban Heat Island Effect conducted in the Canadian city of Toronto concluded that “parks were cooler than the surrounding urban environment by up to 7°C” and that “park cooling was variable but could extend almost 100m downwind into the neighborhood” (Slater 2010)

There is similar research in Melbourne showing that parks can be several degrees cooler than the surrounding urban area, in a feature known as the Park Cool Island. They identified that “the Park Cool Island intensity is often largest at night (like the UHI) and tends to increase with park size (Upmanis and Chen, 1999). Parks with extensive tree coverage tend to be cooler during the afternoon due to shading effects, while more open parks with turf are cooler at night due to greater long-wave radiative cooling.”(Coutts et al 2013) 

Given that there is less convective mixing at night, and artificial turf surface temperatures are elevated to 9pm at night increasing ambient air temperature,  UHIE night time temperatures will be exacerbated when local residents are trying to cool their homes. 

The Victorian ‘Artificial Grass for Sport Guide’ fails to assess synthetic sports surface urban heat island effect (UHIE) for the local neighborhood, although it does minimally highlight there is a problem with high surface temperatures and heat stress health impact for users of the surface. (Sport and Recreation Victoria Feb 2011) In contrast, The WA State Government Department of Sport prepared a detailed Natural Grass vs Synthetic Turf report and Decision Making Guide.  The guide devotes a section to Heat issues – natural grass and synthetic surfaces which contains temperature comparisons between natural grass and artificial turf from studies carried out in the US, Japan and elsewhere, focusing on third generation artificial turf. (WA State Government Department of Sport 2011)

The consultants report for the Sports Surface Needs Analysis only offered limited measures to ameliorate the extra urban heat of these fields, with perhaps some extra tree vegetation on the margins and recommendation to use Coolgrass technology synthetic turf which only offers a marginal reduction (10-15 percent) in surface temperatures. (Moreland Council April 2018) This is far from sufficient for player safety and in moderating surface heat and contribution to the urban heat island effect impact on local residents.

Use of Plant Based Infill

There is some good news for reducing synthetic turf heat by using organic infill which has a high moisture retention capacity. Through regular irrigation twice a week for a field, this can limit the temperature to slightly above grass temperatures.(Greenplay Organics, July 2012) But this has a major tradeoff regarding water use and conservation (refer to water conservation argument) It also does not negate the greenhouse gas emissions, waste to landfill, biodiversity impacts and all the health risks.

A comparative hazard assessment study of alternative infill products and their chemicals from the Toxics Use Reduction Institute, University of Massachusetts Lowell, MA, USA was worth reading. The hazard reviews included: tyre crumb (incumbent), ethylene propylene diene terpolymer EPDM rubber (Alternative), thermoplastic elastomer TPE (Alternative), Waste Shoe Material Infill (Alternative), Acrylic-Coated Sand Infill (Alternative), Plant- or Mineral-Based Infills (Alternative).

Moreland Council have indicated a preference for ‘organic infill’ for any synthetic turf pitch.(Moreland Council 2018, plus Hosken Refresh FAQs, 2021)

This comparative study concludes that “Plant-based materials are likely to contain the fewest toxic chemicals of concern, provided that they are not chemically treated, but could pose hazards related to respiratory fibers, molds, and/or exposure to allergens. If concerns about allergens, dust, and mold growth can be addressed, then these materials may be a safer choice from an environmental health and safety perspective.” 

The authors stress that “Regardless of infill type, artificial turf poses other health and environmental concerns, including chemicals in artificial grass blades, dispersion of synthetic polymer particles in the environment, loss of habitat, and excess heat. TURI has identified organically managed natural grass as a safer alternative and has worked with a number of communities to document their experiences with natural grass playing fields.” (Massey et al, Feb 2020).

Caution needs to be exercised with natural fibers infill potentially posing respiratory risks to both players and local residents. There is a paucity of research on possible health impacts, but nano-scale particles of granulated cork or Coconut Coir dust may pose respiratory issues and can potentially cause hypersensitivity pneumonia (alveolitis). Due to open air exposure the health risk may be very low (but not absent). The question should also be asked if there are people living locally with respiratory deficiencies will they be potentially compromised further given they may have a more constant exposure than players who only visit for a few hours per week?

6. Replaces natural grass which allows soil organic carbon sequestration, provides oxygen

One of the benefits of natural grass oval is its potential to sequester carbon both in grass leaves and in the soil, and produce oxygen. It is a living ecosystem that provides a host of environmental services that is simply not matched by synthetic turf.

There are many studies that argue that urban lawns, even golf courses, can potentially be carbon negative if managed conservatively. Two of the largest sources for greenhouse gas emissions are the use of fertiliser and use of fuel in maintenance. Fertiliser is emissions intensive in manufacturing, and can increase nitrous oxide emissions from grasslands if not applied carefully. Some of these studies argue that fuel use as part of the hidden carbon costs could perhaps be eliminated or greatly reduced through transition to battery electric maintenance vehicles and tools. See (Braun et al 21 March 2019, Kong et al 2013, Law et al 2017, Meil et al 2006, Poeplau et al 2016, Qian et al 2012, Tidåker et al 2017) 

A 2010 study argued that due to regular restoration work due to sports wear, sporting ovals are unlikely to provide carbon sink capability as Soil Organic Carbon. These natural grass sporting ovals are also subject sometimes to high maintenance regimes with irrigation and fertiliser which can cause excess Nitrous Oxide emissions, a very powerful greenhouse gas. Originally the authors concluded most urban lawns would not be carbon sinks but a correction issued 2 months later adjusted their conclusions that while sporting field grass could not effectively store soil organic carbon, the situation was more nuanced generally for urban lawns and grasslands depending upon the maintenance regime hidden carbon costs and conservative fertiliser management. (Townsend-Small, A. and Czimczik, C. (2010a,b). A 2014 study found that the Townsend-Small study used an extremely high fertilisation rate that is rarely used in the turfgrass industry that could affect the results.(Zhang et al 2014)

Nutrient and pesticide pollution from grass sporting fields is a possibility that requires careful management, but research does not justify the claim for either Phosphorus, Nitrogen or pesticides pollution in water runoff using careful management according to Petrovic (2005).

Irrespective of whether the Hosken Reserve grass is actually carbon neutral and operates as a carbon sink, the lifecycle emissions associated with grass is far less than synthetic turf. (See Greenhouse gas emissions section) 

7. Reduces soil biota, grass seeds and insects with a trophic impact on local biodiversity primarily birdlife.

One usually doesn’t associate biodiversity with a grass sporting oval, yet the grasses support a whole host of small creatures: insects, bacteria, and fungi in the soil. The insects and grass seeds are part of a food chain for higher species like local birdlife. Replace this grass with synthetic turf and you impact all this soil biota with a trophic impact on local birdlife.

This is far from supposition. An academic study published in 2020 that looked at replacement of natural grass parks and surfaces to hard surfaces in an urban setting caused a decline of house sparrows. The authors thought this is likely symptomatic of other birdlife decline.  Birds that visit the present oval will try to go elsewhere but will likely be subjected to competitive pressures. The result is less birdlife. (Bernat-Ponce et al 2020). This study references a Melbourne study: that  “replacing natural lawn with artificial grass is seen as a way to save water (Moore 2009) and to reduce management requirements in Mediterranean climates.”  

It draws a conclusion that “These changes could lead to a significant reduction of the diversity and number of available invertebrates which could have an important effect limiting the reproductive success and survival of urban bird species (Chamberlain et al. 2009; Peach et al. 2015).”

There may be a knock on effect of reduced birdlife on mental health of people who live in the area. There is some evidence that birdsong assists in general mental health. Converting Hosken Reserve oval to a synthetic oval will have a trophic impact reducing local birdlife which will be another stressor reducing human mental health of local residents.  ( Begum, Tammana, 8 October 2020)

Insects often get short shrift when biodiversity is talked about, and yet we are facing a major decline in insect populations globally which has a trophic impact on biodiversity up the food chain and also reduces insect pollination services argues the academic study Scientists’ warning to humanity on insect extinctions.(Cardoso et al 2020) 

While replacing a grass oval with synthetic turf at Hosken Reserve may be quite a marginal impact on insect numbers in the global scheme of things, it is part of a cumulative impact in urban areas of increasing hard built-up surfaces reducing insect numbers.

Conversion of a natural grass sports oval that supports some biodiversity and provides environmental services, as well as recreation and organised sport use, to a synthetic pitch epitomises at the micro level what is happening to varying degrees at the landscape and global level. Scientists are clear: Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change. (Díaz et al. December 2019) (see also UNEP February 2021)

8. Compacts the soil increasing stormwater runoff

As well as killing the soil biota a synthetic pitch will compact the soil increasing soil stormwater runoff. 

One of the impacts of rising temperatures due to climate change is that for every degree Celsius of global warming the atmosphere can increase its moisture carrying capacity by about 7 per cent. We are already at 1.1 degrees C of warming so more water can be carried in the atmosphere to come down in more intense rainfall events. A natural grass sporting oval would have a certain capacity to soak up the water while a synthetic turf oval needs to be engineered to capture and store this water to prevent local flash flooding. 

Natural grass provides erosion control, Groundwater Recharge and Surface Water Quality, and assists in organic chemical decomposition preventing pollution and heavy metals from flowing into local stormwater and creek waterways affecting water ecosystems. (Beard et al 1994)

9. Toxic Chemical leachates from rubber infill pollute waterways

Most synthetic turf fields use a recycled tyre rubber infill. After rain chemicals from the synthetic turf wash out as leachates into stormwater and local waterways. These leachates pose toxic health risk for humans and aquatic ecosystems according to a recent study that looked at leachates from 50 synthetic fields around Portugal. (Celeiro et al 2021)

Magnusson and Macsik (14 April 2017) in their Swedish study also raised some concern over leachates: “Substances which are known to be harmful for the aquatic environment and/or humans was detected in all infill leachates. Eight harmful substances were detected from RT with a total of 46 ␮g/l in the leachate….The results show that all infills tested produced leachates containing substances harmful to aquatic life. For the leachates from TPE, EPDM and R-EPDM, information about potential toxicity could not be found for a large share of the total S-VOCs identified and seems to be missing.” (Magnusson  et al April 2017)

See also: A review of potentially harmful chemicals in crumb rubber used in synthetic football pitches. Gomes et al. (May 2021), 

Xu et al (2019)  in their study of toxicity from leachates using a vertebrate model highlighted environmental impacts of Crumb rubber leachates on aquatic life and potential health risk on humans. (Xu et al 2019) 

10. Results in increased lower extremity injuries in elite players

There has been various studies on whether there is an increase in sports injuries from Synthetic turf, some being inconclusive. These are two different surfaces with different sports dynamics.

A recent epidemiological study conducted with 5 years of data concluded  that synthetic turf produces more sports injuries associated with lower extremities than on grass fields. The researchers attempted to eliminate other factors by relying on 5 years of data from the USA National Football league. The study concluded that “These results support the biomechanical mechanism hypothesized and add confidence to the conclusion that synthetic turf surfaces have a causal impact on lower extremity injury.” (Mack et al Jan 2019)

11. Long term human health impacts uncertain, but vertebrate model confirms toxicity to human health of rubber infill leachates

A widely cited authoritative literature review from 2014 advised that there appeared to be low health risks from synthetic turf with crumb rubber infill. This was based on several studies. “Overall, studies evaluating end points in both children and adults consistently found that the tire rubber crumb in playgrounds and artificial turf fields poses low risk to human health through oral exposure.” But the review authors also called for more research: “It is also important to assess more systematically the risk posed by the tire rubber crumb on the environment and human health.” (Cheng et al 2014)

A letter in the International Journal of Hyperthermia in April 2019 identified a lack of epidemiological studies on the prevalence of heat stress episodes associated with synthetic turf compared to natural turf. “Such a study could help answer the questions posed here, regarding dangers associated with elevated surface temperatures. These values should give pause to the use of synthetic turf in warm and sunny situations. Reliance upon regional weather reporting or the wet bulb temperature does not provide a full picture of the threat of heat on synthetic athletic fields.” (Abraham April 2019) 

A more recent Dutch study appears to confirm the conclusions of Cheng (2014) with regard to cancer risk:

“on the current evidence available, it is considered safe to play sports on STP with the rubber infill in place in the Netherlands. No immediate action was thus required. It was recommended though to review the conclusions when the results of the ongoing, large-scale studies in the US become available. Further, it was recognised that, should the rubber granulate have contained concentrations of PAHs as high as the European concentration limits for mixtures, safe use might not be guaranteed. To ensure therefore the supply of rubber granulate with only very low concentrations of hazardous substances (PAHs in particular) and thus the safety for people playing sports, it was recommended to set regulatory limit values specifically for (substances in) rubber granulate.” The authors however pointed out there may be a contribution to a cumulative risk from exposure from other sources for these substances. (Pronk et al 2020)

While rubber infill may contain chemicals of a toxic nature, the health hazard risk needs to be kept in perspective argues Angela Eykelbosh (December 2019), in discussing public perceptions around hazards and risks. She argues that synthetic turf may enable greater physical activity, which brings a population health benefit. But an argument can also be made that artificial turf may only enhance physical activity for a very narrow range of people, and may actually reduce wider active informal recreational activity by reducing open space to a much broader cohort. The social statistics on community physical activity on artificial turf may be heavily skewed. Eykelbosh argues more research is needed on this. 

The author highlights that health is just one lens for decision making on artificial turf: “the artificial turf debate does not only concern health. Playing fields have wider impacts on communities, in terms of equitable access to play space, the costs of maintenance, water usage, contribution to the urban heat island effect, the ability to absorb water and retain run-off during flood season, the threat of fire, impacts on nutrient runoff, the risk of microplastic pollution, the energetic and greenhouse gas costs of installing or removing artificial turfs, and so on. Given all this, it’s easy to see that the choice of playing surface may not be clear cut for many communities. (Eykelbosh December 2019)

However Xu et al (2019) examined the toxicity from leachates using a vertebrate model and the threat it poses to human health. The paper argues:

“Existing risk assessments of artificial athletic turf or CR have suggested low or negligible environmental and human health risks (2–5). However, none of these studies used a vertebrate model. Human health assessments often focused on youth or adult professional players, but the potential risk to younger children could be higher due to their earlier stage of development and frequent hand and facial ground contact. Moreover, the risk to human embryos via maternal exposure to CR is unknown. Environmental risk assessments are usually based on acute toxicity tests with invertebrate species on limited simple toxicological endpoints such as mortality. Chronic tests of CR on vertebrate species are lacking but critically needed because the release of toxic chemicals from CR is continuous and the leaching of contaminants from aging CR can be significant over the field’s functional lifetime.”

It is clear from Xu et al (2019) and others that the health risks of synthetic turf are far from being scientifically settled. While toxicity health risk for players may have a minimal health risk, exposure to chemicals on artificial turf may contribute to cumulative impact when combined with other exposure sources, according to Pronk (2020).

See also further scientific references on toxicity and health risk in the Leachates section.

12. Enhances infection transmission risk, Encourages a microbial community structure primarily defined by anthropic contamination. 

A 2019 study looking at the bacterial and microbiotic differences between natural turf and synthetic grass sporting pitches. There are more incidents of abrasions and turf burns from artificial grass which may provide a pathway for bacterial and microbial infections. A major factor driving microbial diversity on synthetic surfaces is contamination with human sweat or saliva as well as from the natural microflora in the surrounding area. This highlights the importance of regular disinfecting maintenance required. There is an increased  infection health risk from synthetic turf. “Infill materials can represent a potential source for bacterial grow posing putatively higher infection risks respect to natural fields.” (Valeriani et al 2019)

On the other hand, natural grass and soil on the oval at Hosken Reserve may have a positive health effect. There is evidence that contact with natural grass and soil has a positive effect on human health for allergies and auto-immune response. Converting natural grass sporting fields to synthetic surfaces reduces this positive effect. This 2012 study highlights that environmental biodiversity, human microbiota, and allergy are interrelated. As Moreland population density grows, natural spaces, including grass sporting ovals, will provide an important point in boosting children’s immune systems. The study concludes: “Interactions with natural environmental features not only may increase general human well being in urban areas (45), but also may enrich the commensal microbiota and enhance its interaction with the immune system, with far-reaching consequences for public health.” (Hanski et al April 2012)

13. Appears to improve water conservation, but the situation is far more complex when life-cycle assessment and irrigation to reduce heat for playability is taken into account

Water conservation is seen as an important justification for the transition from natural grass to synthetic. While it appears synthetic turf saves more water, this is not straight forward with far more complexity.

The Millennial drought highlighted the changing climate we face here in Melbourne, with rising temperatures and reducing winter and spring rainfall. Our sporting fields suffered, some of our park trees died and many had to be put on drip feed water rations to keep them alive through the drought. Out of this period also came a concerted push by sporting organisations for synthetic turf to ensure they could train and play, rather than the rationed use of grass sporting fields, due to water restrictions preventing irrigation. 

The Melbourne University researcher Greg Moore published an academic paper in 2010 which highlighted water conservation. Dr Greg Moore was Principal of Burnley College of the Institute of Land Food Resources at Melbourne University with expertise in Plant Science and Arboriculture. He was also Head of the School of Resource Management at the University from 2002 to 2007. In the abstract he highlighted the problem; “At a time of climate change, it is worrying that both private and public open spaces are threatened by urban renewal and development that puts at risk long term sustainability.”

“Despite the current, popular view that turf and lawns are profligate water users and are unsustainable in the Australian environment, natural turf is usually a more sustainable option than sealed surfaces or artificial turf if you consider the latter’s fossil fuel chemical base and imbedded energy. Turf is quite a complex ecosystem that has a significant effect on temperature and the heat island effect, and if properly managed also sequesters a considerable amount of carbon. Perhaps it is not the villain that many think it is when they consider only the water component of a more complex equation.” (Moore 2009)

Dr Moore goes on to provide a scenario in the drought of a local Council replacing a naturf turf oval with synthetic turf due to local water authority water restrictions not allowing them to irrigate. It is part of their water policy to be more water efficient.. But the decision ignores the fossil fuel nature of the imported product they are installing with high embedded energy, carbon and water use in the manufacture of the product. Neither has the Council considered capturing the water that runs off or passes through the new artificial turf surface. He argues that an efficient irrigation and water recycling and a water efficient native grass would be a far more sustainable option. 

Does this scenario sound familiar to Hosken Reserve? Since that time many Councils, including Moreland have invested in stormwater harvesting and storage to supplement mains water supply for irrigation of sporting fields. This included the Stormwater harvesting and wetlands project at Hosken Reserve, which involved and engaged and was supported by the community, all while the Hosken Masterplan remained hidden from view.  

Yaghoobian et al (2010) pointed out in their academic study that there is also embodied energy in water used in maintaining manicured lawns. When this energy in transport, delivery and use of water is accounted for there, they found a total energy use saving resulting in water and energy conservation in artificial lawns, although these results are particular to Southern California location and climate. Drought tolerant plants which require significantly less water than lawn may have a similar effect as artificial turf conjecture the researchers.

Abigail Alm in her undergraduate thesis highlighted the extent of embedded water use in synthetic turf manufacture and compared it with water used for irrigating a natural turf sporting field. She found evidence that synthetic turf uses about 4 years worth of water in the manufacturing process as one year of natural turf irrigation. Synthetic turf will also use water for cooling and cleaning. So the proffered water savings of synthetic turf during maintenance needs to be balanced with the embedded water during manufacturing once total life-cycle assessment analysis is taken into account.

“…producing synthetic turf, a product that raves about its ability to “save” water, requires a significant amount of water to be produced.” says Ms Alm

“A natural grass athletic field, under the assumption a standard field is 1.32 acres and must be watered once a week with a volume comparable to an acre/inch, requires 1,290 kGal to maintain the field per year (Sports Turf Managers Association and SAFE: The Foundation for Safer Athletic Fields). Whereas, synthetic fibers used to produce turf, according to Table 2, requires 6880 kGal per one million dollars spent on production. 

“According to FieldTurf, one synthetic field costs 720,000 dollars to produce (Sports Turf Managers Association and SAFE: The Foundation for Safer Athletic Fields). When taken into consideration, it costs 4,985 kGal of water to produce one synthetic field. This amount is 4 times the amount required to adequately maintain a natural grass field over the course of one year (Table 4). Granted, synthetic turf will outlast a 4 year period, but may in some environments require small inputs of water to be properly maintained (cleaning and cooling) throughout the many years of use in addition to the manufacturing demands. Overall, synthetic turf may not be “saving” as much water as the companies claim when production demands are accounted for. The negative externalities featured in Table 1, 2, and 3 make artificial turf a product that should be more thoroughly evaluated  before installation continues in areas across the country not featured in Figure 4.”

Another life cycle analysis by Adachi et al (2016) compared lifetime  water use between a synthetic field and a natural grass field. It found that “our lifecycle water consumption for artificial turf (1926.26 gal/m 2 ) was much lower than that of natural grass (7926.08 gal/m 2 ). Turf requires roughly 24.3% of the water that natural grass does.”

“For artificial turf, by far the two highest contributors to this water consumption were water used to create energy used in manufacturing artificial turf (50.12% of life cycle water consumption), and water used to clean the turf (48.65% of life cycle water consumption). The remaining 1.23% came from backing production, water used directly in production (stage one), and blade manufacturing. For natural grass, the largest component is by far the water used to irrigate the grass once it is installed. This represents 82.77% of the total water input. If you add in the water used to produce the sod, which is essentially just watering the lawn before it’s rolled up and delivered to a home, then that figure rises to 87.90% of all water consumed.”

Clearly there is a discrepancy here on total life cycle assessment of water in these two studies, although synthetic turf comes out ahead in both assessments on total water use.

Natural turf is also becoming more drought tolerant with higher water efficiency, with different varieties and future possibilities as described by Hatfield, J. (2017).

But the issue gets more complicated.

A study by Kanaan et al (August 2020) called Water Requirements for Cooling Artificial Turf confirms a water usage for cooling model that Synthetic Turf and Natural turf water usage may be comparable during the maintenance part of the total life cycle assessment.

“This model indicates that the amount of water required to maintain AT temperatures at levels comparable to irrigated NT over a 24-h period exceed the water requirements of bermudagrass NT in the same environment. Thus, the argument for using AT- instead of bermudagrass-based NT in arid climate zones for water conservation is nuanced and depends on the presence of an irrigation system, desired playing conditions, and the length of time irrigation will be used to maintain the target temperature during daylight hours.”

Development of organic infills has occurred due to heightened community perceptions over the health risk of crumb rubber infill used in synthetic turf, and the elevated surface temperatures that can cause heat stress.

At least one synthetic turf manufacturer has developed a product with an organic infill material that ameliorates the high surface temperatures. It does this by having a moisture carrying capacity which acts similar to plant transpiration in cooling the artificial surface.  But it comes with a tradeoff: increased water use.  

The ISA Sports test results on comparing the Limonta Sports synthetic turf with organic Infill with a synthetic field with rubber infill and Natural grass has implications for water use of synthetic fields. “Even under the most intense heat and with no naturally occurring precipitation we feel that the field will require no more than 12,000 gallons of water applied twice a week for the field to perform optimally.”(Greenplay Organics, July 2012)

That translates as 1,200 kgals per year. A Natural grass field will use about 1,290 kgals per year, according to Alm (2016). So this is pretty similar to Kanaan et al (2020) position that synthetic field water use for managing field temperatures is comparable to the water requirements of a natural grass field.

If Organic infill is used for a new sporting field, increased water use needs to be also part of the equation. The original source of the infill fibres also need consideration to ensure this isn’t causing emissions associated with land clearing and biodiversity impacts at source. 

Organic infill synthetic turf still has a waste problem. “There are no reports of organic infill pitches being recycled at present.” reported Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd for FIFA, (March 2017).

It is clear that water conservation is a complex issue regarding natural turf vs synthetic turf, and needs to be considered with care.

Economic Costs

The Western Australia Department of Sport in their 2011 analysis of Synthetic vs natural sporting fields contained the following total life cycle cost comparison for a soccer pitch with construction and annual maintenance costs and Total life costs for 25 year and 50 year life periods. Costs are in 2011 dollar values. (WA State Government Department of Sport, 2011)

Construction Costs Natural Grass Synthetic Turf
Soccer (Community pitch) $212,000 $705,000
Operating Costs (Annual) Natural Grass Synthetic Turf
Soccer (Community pitch) $27,250 $25,000
Total life cost Natural Grass 25 years Natural Grass 50 years Synthetic Turf 25 years Synthetic Turf 50 years
Soccer (community pitch) $1,004,917 $1,797,833 $2,517,500 $4,330,000

Synthetic turf total life cycle assessment economic costs are more than double that of natural grass. 

Carbon Tracker graph on plastic externalities

Football Victoria recommends a 2:1 equivalence value for synthetic turf to Natural grass pitch usage.(Football Federation Victoria, 2018) On a usage basis, halving the total life cycle economic costs for synthetic turf still does not quite match the total life cycle economic costs of Natural grass for a 25 year or 50 year period.

Carbon Tracker estimates plastics contribute an untaxed externality upon society of at least $1,000 per tonne from carbon dioxide, health costs, collection costs, and ocean pollution. This may be a conservative estimate as the researchers say it does not include the cost of litter on land, the cost of microplastics, and the health costs to workers in petrochemical plants.(Carbon Tracker 2020). 

In the Moreland City Council – ‘Detailed Capital Works Expenditure Program for 2020/21’

18623 Hosken Reserve – Synthetic Soccer $1,000,000 allocated being $300,000 grant funding and  $700,000 from Council. 

The Moreland Sport and Recreation Strategy 2020 listed 4 expenditure items for Hosken Reserve:

Hosken Reserve Moreland PavilionRedevelopment Strategy Refurbish facilities at Reserve 2021/22 $222K
Hosken Reserve(south) Moreland SportsfieldsReview Reconstruct playing field 2020-22 $600K
Hosken Reserve(north) Moreland SportsfieldsReview Develop synthetic field (including lights) 2021/22 $1.2M
Hosken Reserve Hosken Reserve Masterplan Complete implementation of masterplan 6-10 years $800K

So we are looking at Moreland Council expenditure of at least One million dollars to convert an existing grass oval to a new synthetic surface. This includes ripping up the current irrigation system on the oval. A large amount of expense would need to be renewed at end of life in replacing the synthetic turf mat and infill, generally considered as 10 years. 

And we get over 500 tonnes CO2 equivalent emissions (Magnusson and Macsik 14 April 2017)  and all the problems of generating approximately 274 tonnes of landfill waste (turf mat and infill) every ten years.(Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd for FIFA, March 2017)

The Sports and Recreation Strategy, written at the time when Council were proceeding with grass to synthetic conversion without any local engagement or public availability of the Reserve masterplan, also recommended installation of an athletics track when the synthetic field is constructed at Hosken Reserve.

14. Other issues: Fire risk, alternative infills, Traffic, Car Parking, cycling impacts

One of the issues discovered during research was the increased flammability of a synthetic turf pitch. If synthetic turf was to go ahead Fire risk plans would need to be put into place. There is a risk of sporting fans causing fire, a risk of vandals trying to start a fire on the field. Currently the oval is occasionally used by people to set off fireworks as this is the only local space to do so for nearby residents. This would no longer be acceptable from a fire risk point of view, but I wonder if  New Years Eve revellers would accept this restriction? Accompanying the fire risk is the toxicity and health risk of smoke from any fire for local residents.(Kukfisz, B., 2018)

The Sports Surface Needs Analysis (2018) proposed that organic infills be used to counter public perceptions of a health risk from using SBR crumbed rubber infills and other plastics based infill products. While recent studies confirm that there appears to be minimal toxicity health risk to player safety from crumbed rubber infills, this is a far from settled issue according to several reports, including the vertebrate model confirming toxicity of crumbed rubber infill, and the lack of any long term epidemiological studies which may show higher cancer risk. 

The Delaware River Keepers report on alternative infills raises several concerns. “Very few toxicological and risk assessment studies regarding the health and environmental impacts of emerging alternative infill options have been completed but from the data that is available there are many concerns to be had. While there is insufficient data on the chemical composition, off-gassing, leaching, and associated health and environmental effects that may result, the data that is available demonstrates many reasons for concern. For these reasons, the precautionary principle should be used to avoid the unnecessary and potentially devastating harms to those who would come in direct contact with the infills and the environment surrounding them. All alternative infill options are significantly more expensive than traditional crumb rubber; with all artificial turf systems (including those with crumb rubber infill) costing more than natural turf grass.There is no proven record of the durability, performance, and lifespan of these infills to warrant the cost.”(Delaware Riverkeeper Network, October 2016)

A synthetic turf pitch with double the usage will likely generate more traffic in surrounding streets, particularly Shorts Road and Pallett street. Traffic levels may increase on these quiet streets. This will likely increase competition for on street parking, and add to residents perceptions of safety for children, reduce local residential amenity.

Both Shorts Road and Pallett street are presently fairly quiet traffic routes, and sometimes used by cyclists for this reason. Shorts Road is an east-west route from Merri Creek to Sussex street and further west, Pallett street as a north-south route to Richards Reserve and the velodrome and points further south. 

Discussion

Let us go back to examine the triple bottom line criteria of the benefits and impacts for the social, environmental and economic factors for conversion of a natural grass sporting oval to a synthetic sports pitch.

There is social benefit gained by increased organised sport usage enabled by a synthetic turf pitch. This benefit predominantly accrues to those people participating in the sporting clubs that use this space and it also contributes to a general population health benefit. There are also social and mental health benefits accruing to these people from also being part of a sporting club. But there are also social impacts which largely accrue to local residents who presently use this open space. Restrictions on use of artificial turf, and less availability of this space due to increased use by the Sporting Club, less open space for informal active recreation, more traffic in local streets, less birds to enjoy their birdsong, increased urban heat island effect which will manifest as a higher night time impact on local residents liveability and comfort.

The environmental factors are mostly negative: increased greenhouse gas emissions, a product that adds to landfill and pollution from leachates, increases microplastics pollution, reduces biodiversity, urban heat island effect, increases infection risk and reduces opportunity for boosting immune systems. Both the carbon footprint of synthetic turf and disposal of synthetic turf contradict existing Moreland Council policies.

On the Economic side the total life cycle cost of synthetic turf is more than double the total life cycle cost of natural grass. Even if you factor in a 2 to 1 Usage factor for artificial surface as per Football Victoria, the economic total life cycle cost is still marginally greater for synthetic turf. And this ignores the present situation with Hosken Reserve with an established grass surface with an irrigation system connected to existing stormwater harvesting already installed. This infrastructure is slated to be ripped up as part of installation of any synthetic pitch.

Water conservation has been widely used as a justification for installing synthetic turf, but this issue too is complicated. Synthetic turf has water embedded in its production, although less water is used during maintenance but resulting in substantial surface temperatures during sunny weather. It is the water content in the soil, grass and trees that through evapotranspiration provides essential cooling which adds to human comfort and liveability. These benefits largely apply to local residents. To maximise usage of synthetic turf in spring, summer and autumn to keep surface temperatures low and avoid heat stress health risk, irrigation would be required to cool the artificial surface on a regular basis thus cancelling out any water saving. There are organic infill products now available that may help limit synthetic surface temperatures by having a moisture carrying capacity, but these require regular irrigation thus also cancelling out any purported water conservation.

Conclusion

It is the considered opinion of Climate Action Moreland that based on triple bottom line decision making factors synthetic turf justification is marginal at best for the social factors with some positive and some negative, strongly against based on the environmental factors, with the economics still not stacking up for synthetic turf even once you factor in the 2 to 1 equivalence usage factor as used by Football Federation Victoria.. 

Climate Action Moreland argues that there are two grounds on which synthetic turf should not even be contemplated based upon conflict with existing Council policies. Either reason should be singly sufficient for natural grass conversion to synthetic turf to not proceed at Hosken Reserve. These reasons are: total life cycle assessment analysis of greenhouse gas emissions at a time when we need to be reducing high carbon footprint infrastructure as part of the climate emergency, and the end of life disposal as landfill and its associated problems of leachate pollution and microplastics.

The reasons enumerated are also strong grounds for Moreland Council to reconsider the standing recommendations for the nine sporting fields recommended to be converted to either hybrid or full synthetic surfaces. This reconsideration should be done as it is a requirement of the Local Government Act 2020 overarching governance principles (section 9 Point (2)

“(b) priority is to be given to achieving the best outcomes for the municipal community, including future generations;

(c) the economic, social and environmental sustainability of the municipal district, including mitigation and planning for climate change risks, is to be promoted;”


References

Abraham, John (April 2019) Heat risks associated with synthetic athletic fields, International Journal of Hyperthermia 36(1):1-2, DOI: 10.1080/02656736.2019.1605096 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02656736.2019.1605096 

Addas, Abdullah; Goldblatt, Ran; Rubinyi, Steven. 2020. “Utilizing Remotely Sensed Observations to Estimate the Urban Heat Island Effect at a Local Scale: Case Study of a University Campus” Land 9, no. 6: 191. https://doi.org/10.3390/land9060191 

Alm, Abigail.,  (May 2016), Is Synthetic Turf Really “Greener”? A Lifecycle Analysis of Sports Fields Across the United States, Undergraduate thesis, Carthage College, Kenosha, Wisconsin https://dspace.carthage.edu/handle/123456789/5520 

Adachi, Jennifer., Jansen, Chris., Lindsay, Marina.,  (2016), Comparison of the Lifetime Costs and Water Footprint of Sod and Artificial Turf: A Life Cycle Analysis, Austin Park, Carolina Villacis UCLA Environment 159 Professor Deepak Rajagopal June 2, 2016. https://www.ioes.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sod-vs-artificial-turf.pdf 

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 “Recently completed outdoor testing at the ISA Sport USA Lab in Lubbock, TX further substantiates the fact that Limonta Sport synthetic turf with organic InfillPro Geo© greatly reduces the surface temperature of the synthetic playing field to the point where it is compatible to playing on natural grass.” You can read the testing report here by ISA Sports in the US. http://www.synturf.org/images/ISA_LAB_Temp_Study_-_Copy.pdf 

There was an earlier testing report from 2010 done at Università IUAV di Venezia which backed Limonta’s claim that the corkonut infill was running substantially cooler than rubber infill.The Synturf alternative infill page (http://www.synturf.org/alternativeinfill.html ) contains the report: http://www.synturf.org/images/Limonta_Sport_Temperature_Comparison_Test_GEO_vs_Natural_vs_SBR.PDF 

Comment: Water conservation is seen as an important justification for the transition from natural grass to synthetic. The ISA Sports test results on comparing the Limonta Sports synthetic turf with organic Infill with a synthetic field with rubber infill and Natural grass has implications for water use of synthetic fields. “Even under the most intense heat and with no naturally occurring precipitation we feel that the field will require no more than 12,000 gallons of water applied twice a week for the field to perform optimally.” That translates as 1,200 kgals per year. A Natural grass field will use about 1,290 kgals per year, according to Alm (2016). Kanaan et al (2020) argue that synthetic field water use for managing field temperatures is comparable to the water requirements of a natural grass field. If Organic infill is used for a new sporting field, increased water use needs to be also part of the equation. Original source of the infill fibres need consideration to ensure this isn’t causing emissions associated with landclearing and biodiversity impacts at source.

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An associated news article at the Conversation: February 28, 2021 Plastic is part of the carbon cycle and needs to be included in climate calculations, Xia Zhu, University of Toronto.
https://theconversation.com/plastic-is-part-of-the-carbon-cycle-and-needs-to-be-included-in-climate-calculations-154730 


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