Turf Field Report Regarding Climate Change
As part of our ongoing study, the LWV Committee on Climate Change has been examining how we in Cazenovia fit in with the New York State Climate Action Plan to reduce our carbon footprint. The recently proposed synthetic turf fields project at the school falls squarely in our field of interest, as turf fields are petroleum based products. While there are clearly many aspects to the school proposal in which people have an interest, the focus of our study concerns whether or how a turf field contributes to global warming.
Artificial turf consists of synthetic fibers (often plastic) that are not biodegradable. These fibers are supported and cushioned with infill, most commonly granulated rubber, a/k/a crumb rubber. Granulated rubber is often made from recycled waste tires, which are another source of petrochemicals. According to the information provided by the Cazenovia Central School District, the turf fields proposed will be 81,000 square feet at the lower field and 68,400 square feet at the upper field. A typical turf field is 80,000 feet, and each field consists of 40,000 pounds of plastic carpet and 400,000 pounds of infill.
These are heat retaining materials which can significantly increase field surface temperatures as well as air temperature near fields. Watering the synthetic turf gives only a short lived, temporary reduction in temperature. A report by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation found that temperatures on an artificial turf field were 35 – 42 degrees higher than on natural grass. A study by Penn State found a synthetic field was 60.3 degrees Fahrenheit greater than natural grass. Because artificial grass reaches significantly greater temperatures than those reached by natural grass under the same meteorological conditions, an additional amount of carbon energy is released and absorbed by the atmosphere. Therefore, the substitution of artificial grass for natural grass contributes to global warming. The more it degrades over time, the more toxic it becomes and there is greater release to the atmosphere.
The use of plant life to reduce our greenhouse gases is a proven method of addressing global warning. Natural grass fields serve as important “carbon sinks” which remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The loss of these natural filters hinders our efforts to address the climate crisis. Crumb rubber also continuously migrates from the synthetic playing fields and contaminates the soil. It is carried in the air and adds to what is called plastic rain, considered more dangerous than acid rain. This pollution interferes with the ability of plant life to grow properly and thus act effectively as a carbon sponge. Moreover, the manufacture, transportation, and maintenance of the turf also releases carbon into the atmosphere. A study done for Upper Canada College when it installed its artificial turf field estimated that the total green house gas emissions from the manufacturing, transporting, installing, maintaining and disposing of a 9000 square meter (96875.19 sq. ft.) artificial field over a 10 year period would emit 55.6 tons of carbon dioxide. The construction and maintenance of a natural grass field the same size would remove 16.9 tons of carbon dioxide. The study estimated that 1861 trees would need to be planted to achieve a 10 year carbon neutral field at the site.
The protection of our land and water is essential so as not to worsen our carbon footprint and exposure to other pollutants. It is for that reason that the EPA has strict rules for the disposal of tires. Unfortunately, there are no regulations or requirements for the disposal of artificial turf at the end of its useful life. It is left to the turf owner to get rid of the waste. Much ends up in landfills or abandoned elsewhere. The same properties that make it useful make it impossible for nature to break it down. The leaching and outgassing continue and is expected to be greater from the turf than from full size tires. One might suppose that the re-use of tires for turf would be a positive for the environment, but it is not. Due to the accelerated outgassing from the shredded tires and the widespread dispersal of the crumb rubber, the re-use makes the carbon release worse than leaving the tire whole. At present there are no effective recycling methods available for artificial turf.
These turf field plastic carpets are usually made from polyethylene, the plastic found to release gases at the highest rate. And given the high surface area occupied by this material, including each individual blade of plastic “grass,” synthetic turf likely contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. This finding was published in Martha’s Vineyard Times in February 2018 in an article written by Sarah-Jeanne Roger,PhD, an oceanographer with expertise in plastic pollution. Her conclusion on the adverse impact of artificial turf on the climate is amply supported by other scientists as noted earlier.
This carbon study on turf fields is just one aspect of the overall issue to be considered by the public in making a determination on the school turf fields proposal.
Lim and Walker R. 2009, “An Assessment of Chemical Leaching, Releases to Air and Temperature at Crumb Rubber Infilled Synthetic Turf Fields”
Center for Sports Surface Research
2015 “The Effect of Irrigation on Synthetic Turf Characteristics: Surface Temperature, University Park, PA. Pennsylvania State University
“Health Impact Assessment of the Use of Artificial Turf in Toronto”
April 2015, www.toronto.ca
“Plastic Rain Is the New Acid Rain”
Matt Simon, SCIENCE, June 11, 2020
“New Frontiers in Remediation of Micro plastics”
SCIENCE DIRECT, Volume 28 April 2021
Leslie Golden, 2021
“The Contribution of Artificial Turf to Global Warming”
SUSTAINABILITY AND CLIMATE CHANGE, December
More general information and references can be found at Wikipedia under “artificial turf.”