Natural grass or Synthetic turf? What are the total life cycle emission profiles

February 28, 2021 at 11:26 pm 5 comments

Total life cycle analysis of synthetic turf GHG emissions

A local residents campaign in Moreland over conversion of a sporting oval in Hosken Reserve from natural grass to synthetic turf has stimulated debate on the impacts of supporting a fossil-fuel/plastics industry product for organised Sport and Recreation. Although there are many impacts of an oval conversion, the issue that concerns us greatly in Climate Action Moreland are the greenhouse gas emissions. We do have a climate emergency, which has been declared by Council in 2018.

A 2006 Canadian total life cycle emissions study found that a 9000m2 grass pitch would have a 10 year baseline carbon negative impact of minus 16.9 tonnes CO2e while the synthetic turf would generate 55.6 tonnes CO2e (Note: this study assumed -53t Co2e saving at end of life with full recycling – this would not occurr in Australia with most materials going to landfill). A 2017 Swedish total life cycle emissions study on a modelled 7881m2 synthetic field concluded GHG emissions would be 527 ton CO2e for a ten year period.

Update: A deeper reading of the 2017 consultants report to FIFA revealed that total life cycle emissions for a standard FIFA sized pitch may be up to 1500 tonnes CO2e. This comes from examining a graph of total life cycle green house gas emissions for synthetic turf with various infill and various end of life disposal in the report.

Council Infrastructure that increases emissions needs to be very carefully considered as part of Council operations and the Zero Carbon Moreland 2040 Framework (Adopted Sep 2018).

Moreland Council in adopting the Sports Surface Needs Analysis in April 2018 has committed to considering five full grass to synthetic conversions and four hybrid conversions. The Hosken Reserve masterplan including a new synthetic surface in the north east may have been decided by Council in 2009, but with zero local community consultation over the past 11 years, including a lack of transparency in no masterplan being made available. Hosken Reserve masterplan is currently back into community consultation on the Conversations Moreland website, due to the failure in community consultation.

Sports Surface Needs Analysis (2018) recommended conversions

The Moreland Council report on Sports Surface Needs Analysis (2018) and the consultants report attached (as excerpted from Council agenda and archived by Sustainable Fawkner) provided a reference in the footnotes to a 2006 Canadian study comparing the total life cycle emissions of a 9000 square metre sporting field as natural grass and as a synthetic turf.

Total life cycle emissions profiles provides a method to compare different surfaces and their overall climate impact.

Reading the consultants report is very difficult as they are image pages. Page 64 of the consultants report (pp 354 in Council agenda) says that “A Canadian study found that a 9000m2 synthetic facility over 10 years, recorded a total CO2 emissions of 55.6 tonnes and the tree planting offset requirements was 1861 trees.”

It doesn’t provide further information. You have to go to the original study to delve deeper and find out the total life cycle emissions profile of the natural grass oval. This turns out to be minus 16.9 tonnes CO2e over a 10 year period. So a grass oval actually works as a net carbon sink.

“Total GHG emissions factor of the baseline and project are estimated respectively to (- 16.9) and (55.6) tonnes CO 2 e. GHG emissions offset is estimated to be (-72.6) tonnes CO 2 e.”

Total life cycle Emissions profile of grass and synthetic turf

I read the 2006 Canadian study – ‘Estimating the Required Global Warming Offsets to Achieve a Carbon Neutral Synthetic Field Turf System Installation‘ by Jamie Meil and Lindita Bushi.

Flaw in Canadian study assumptions

Just on my limited scientific reading I found this study has a major assumption flaw: that components of synthetic turf will be recycled after a 10 year period.

We know from the 2017 FIFA study – ‘Environmental Impact Study on Artificial Football‘ – that only a small proportion of Artificial Turf is recycled in Europe, and none elsewhere including the US, Canada and Australia, where it is either sent to industrial incinerators or the cheaper option of landfill. Some might be sent to limited down cycling in smaller uses before it goes for either incineration or landfill. Some of the field construction materials may be recycled. But the polyethylene fibres will not be separated from the polyurethane matt base and the infill. Landfill is a far cheaper option for disposal (but at great environmental cost).

Jamie Meil and Lindita Bushi include in their assumptions that the synthetic turf system will be recycled at end of life with a saving of 53 tonnes of CO2 emissions. This is highly unlikely to happen in any instance other than some cases in Europe. If you discount this emissions saving in this study, total life cycle emissions could easily be in the region of 100 tonnes CO2e for one field according to the modelled study parameters.

Instead of 1861 trees, you may need greater than 3700 trees to offset one pitch.

2017 Swedish study on total life cycle assessment of a synthetic field.

A more recent Swedish study looked just at the total life cycle emissions of a synthetic field, but with no baseline natural grass comparison.

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)

While I haven’t the skills to compare the methodologies, both the Canadian and Swedish studies claim to cover total life cycle assessment.

It is clear in both studies that Synthetic turf loads both energy and emissions at the start and end of the total emissions life cycle: in the initial manufacture and processing, and in the end of life disposal.

FIFA’s own consultants report shows 1500 tonnes life-cycle GHG emissions

I keep on digging deeper and become more surprised at what I find on synthetic turf.
A 2017 consultants report for FIFA identified that a standard sized FIFA synthetic pitch using crumbed rubber infill would produce over 1500 tonnes CO2e total life cycle emissions. Add in up to 70 percent more emissions if an organic infill was used like the Limonta product which is a combination of cork and coconut husk fibre.
The consultancy report to FIFA was written by Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd for FIFA, (March 2017) and titled Environmental Impact Study on Artificial Football Turf.
From the details in the report:
* A FIFA standard pitch is 7526 square metres.
* A standard pitch to landfill with infills weighs 274 tonnes
* 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 to Crumbed rubber.
* Both the crumbed rubber and cork infill pitches to landfill disposal (cheapest option) 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.
* Recycling is not done outside of Europe and even in Europe only a very small proportion of synthetic turf is actually recycled.
This is three times the 2017 Swedish study total life cycle assessment of greenhouse gas emissions (527 ton CO2e. (Magnusson and Macsik 14 April 2017)
On the economics of installing a synthetic turf pitch.
I also looked at the Football Federation Victoria 2 to 1 equivalence ratio which they use for usage of a synthetic turf. I applied this ratio to total life cycle costs comparing a synthetic turf pitch to a natural grass sports field. Even considering double the usage for synthetic the natural grass sports field still came out ahead on the total economics costs.
Of course at Hosken Reserve there is already an established grass field with in-ground irrigation. Installing a synthetic pitch means ripping out that irrigation system that was only put in a few years ago when the stormwater harvesting project and wetland area was completed for $1.5 million.

Those polyester fibres in synthetic turf emit green house gases as they break down

Another fairly recent study looked at the production of green house gases as plastics slowly break down.

Synthetic turf is made of polyethylene yarn fibres. Polyethylene fibres are a source for greenhouse gas pollution as the polyethylene plastic breaks down, producing methane and ethylene.

This continues during the life (and disposal) of the product. If synthetic turf is disposed of by incineration you get a burst of greenhouse gas emissions. If the synthetic turf is sent to landfill as part of disposal, it slowly emits greenhouse gases as the plastic fibres degrade and break down. This also contributes to micro-plastics pollution if they are able to leach out of the landfill site into local waterways.

“low-density polyethylene emits these gases [ methane, ethylene, ethane, propylene] when incubated in air at rates ~2 times and ~76 times higher than when incubated in water for methane and ethylene, respectively. Our results show that plastics represent a heretofore unrecognized source of climate-relevant trace gases that are expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulated in the environment.”

LDPE degradation and GHG production over time under ambient sunlight conditions

The study reports:
“The release of greenhouse gases from virgin and aged plastic over time indicates that polymers continue to emit gases to the environment for an undetermined period. We attribute the increased emission of hydrocarbon gases with time from the virgin pellets to photo-degradation of the plastic, as well as the formation of a surface layer marked with fractures, micro-cracks and pits. With time, these defects increase the surface area available for further photo-chemical degradation and therefore might contribute to an acceleration of the rate of gas production. It is also known that smaller particles of secondary origin termed ‘microplastics’ are eventually produced and may further accelerate gas production. The initial shape of the polymer is also a potential factor contributing to the variability in hydrocarbon production because items of the same mass but with different shapes have different surface-to-volume ratios. Small fragments not only have a greater surface-to-volume ratio than larger items, but they also tend to have longer edge lengths relative to their volume. This predicts that in the environment, as plastic particles degrade and become smaller, they will also emit more hydrocarbon gases per unit mass. The emission of gases from the aged plastic collected from the ocean (age unknown at the start of the experiment) indicates that production may continue throughout the entire lifetime of the plastic.”

Synthetic turf in Australia ends up as landfill where the plastics will continue to degrade into micro-plastics producing greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreland Council adopted a zero waste to landfill by 2030 policy (read the Waste policy PDF).

It would be highly ironic for Moreland Council to continue to implement conversion of natural grass ovals to synthetic turf which end up as landfill, breaking their own Waste and Litter policy and target.

Another area of hypocritical application of Council policy: On the one hand Moreland Council have implemented a Plastic-wise policy applied to all Moreland Council organised or sponsored events encouraging stall holders to use alternatives to single use plastics. This policy leadership should be applauded. Yet Council Sport and Recreation are keen on rolling out an industrial scale program of large scale grass to plastic conversion. They are not applying the same ethics on plastic use.

The United Nations Environment program have identified in a report this month – Making Peace with Nature – that the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies are all linked. Australian energy analyst Ketan Joshi has articulated in a recent article that Plastics are a carbon copy of the climate crisis. Yet we have Moreland Council intent on a program of increasing plastics for sporting surfaces.

Synthetic Turf and vested interests

Synthetic turf is a product of the fossil fuel, Plastics and Chemical Industry. Care must be taken with ‘research’ and industry bias. Remember the Tobacco campaigns to delay and deny the association of tobacco with cancer? And the campaigns by the Fossil Fuel Industry to discredit climate science?

Abigail Alm articulates this in her Undergraduate thesis in 2016, Is Synthetic Turf Really “Greener”? A Lifecycle Analysis of Sports Fields Across the United States:
“Many reports about the environmental state of turf have been published, but the number of reports published that are not funded directly by a company with a vested interest in supportive results are challenging to find. Unbiased research about the environmental viability of crumb rubber and turf systems as a whole is underdeveloped. As debates over turf on local and large scale stages increase in the media it is expected that independent research will also come to light, providing a more complete picture to artificial turf’s true colors. The fact that 9 out of 10 articles supporting the installation of turf based on scientific “findings” and assurances are in some way tied to major producers, casts a shadow of doubt on to the reliability of the findings. If artificial turf was truly a wonder product with no negative externalities like
producers would like you to believe, it should be supported by more sources than just those who are directly benefiting from good press.”


Entry filed under: climate change info, Moreland Council, news, waste. Tags: , , , , , .

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