Campaign against Synthetic Turf in Merri-bek

Clifton Park synthetic turf pitch tyre rubber infill

Synthetic turf has been installed on two soccer pitches in Merribek. It has also been rolled out on Bowling Greens and at Community Tennis Courts and one hockey pitch.

A number of schools, both public and private have also installed synthetic turf in playgrounds.

There has been limited engagement on the health and environmental impacts of synthetic turf, with the process being driven by sports clubs and state Sports Federations listing the social benefits that arise, but often accrue to a limited focus of citizens.

Schools have seen installing synthetic turf as easy maintenance playground, and have failed to consider impact on childrens health and learning as per the research by scientists at the University of Western Sydney. See School Microlimates report (Pfautsch et al 2020) and Cool Schools report (Madden et al 2018)

Installation of synthetic turf is usually part funded by State Government grants, often substantially so.

The State Government Guidelines for use and installation of Artificial Turf – Artificial grass for sport guide – were written in 2010 and published February 2011. They are now greatly out of date with regard to all the environmental and health impacts that have been revealed by over a decade of active research in this area.

Climate Action Merribek first started to be concerned about synthetic turf in Merri-bek municipality when at the April 2018 Council meeting a consultants report was presented – The Sports surface Needs Analysis (PDF of consultants report and Officer covering notes. Note how difficult it is to read the consultant’s report within its embed in the Council minutes) was presented and voted upon. )

See Natural grass or Synthetic turf? What are the total life cycle emission profiles (February 28, 2021)

CAM Convenor John Englart concerns were raised and asked a question at Council meeting on the synthetic turf impact on urban heat and how this would be ameliorated. The Director gave a fairly meaningless answer saying it would be dealt with as part of each installation. Buried in the depths of the report there were environmental impacts listed, but none of these were escalated into the Council Officers report that accompanied the Officer resolution. The Executive summary of the consultants report also glossed over the potential health and environmental impacts.

At this stage there were two synthetic soccer pitches in Merribek: A community pitch at Clifton Park with crumb rubber infill; and a soccer pitch with crumb rubber shared jointly by Merri-bel Council and Fawkner College in Fawkner adjacent to CB Smith Reserve. The Sports surface Needs Analysis Consultants report advocated another 8 sporting fields in the municipality should be considered for conversion to synthetic.

Hosken Reserve in Coburg North

In 2020 Merri-bek Council put out to tender conversion of the Hosken Reserve football oval to a fenced synthetic soccer pitch. Over the previous decade there had been zero engagement with local residents over this conversion. The masterplan had not been made publicly available on Council’s website. There followed a campaign both highlighting Council’s lack of public consultation and transparency as well as raising the environmental and health impacts of Synthetic Turf. The tender did not go ahead. Council was forced to conduct community engagement process over develoment of Hosken Reserve.

The engagement process did not consider use and upgrade of nearby sports fields such as at Richards Reserve, nor future pending major residential development bordering Hosken Reserve to the east. There was no discussion and engagement process for upgrading the tennis surface at Hosken Reserve.

When the engagement process fed back to Council, a decision was made not to proceed with a synthetic surface, but the oval would be made into a fenced soccer pitch at the large end of the range specified by Soccer Victoria (when the community preferred the a small end of the standard range)

The existing natural turf soccer putch at Hosken south which is exclusively used by Pascoe Vale Soccer Club, would be upgraded to include some hybrid surfaces. A shared oval is being turned into a space with reduced community use more dedicated for soccer use. While a full synthetic conversion was stopped, hybrid synthetic will still go ahead on the Hosken South soccer pitch. After the major residential development application was approved , a subsequent decision of Council allocated the East Field for Community use.

In total, the local community saw this as a very mixed bag win.

The Campaign website, Save Hosken Reserve, is no longer available. Posts on the Save Hosken Reserve Facebook group indicate the campaign concluded in May 2022.

A second Hockey pitch for Merribek?

Competitive Hockey is mostly now played on synthetic surfaces, some sand filled, some water filled. Artificial turf for hockey poses many of the same issues as for soccer pitches in terms of total life cycle carbon footprint, waste disposal at end of life, microplastics generation, potential cumulative health impacts.

Merribek currently has a hockey pitch at Brunswick High School. A feasibility study for a second hockey pitch was presented to Council in September 2022 with two sites identified, at MacDonald Reserve in Coburg and Parker Reserve in Fawkner.

The Officer recommendation was for the Feasibility study to be noted,  that Parker Reserve North Coburg and Macdonald Reserve Coburg were “recommended by the feasibility study as possible sites for a second hockey field, subject to further consideration, community engagement and funding availability”; and that Council “Defers further consideration of this study until the second half of 2023.”

In it’s decision, Council amended the officer recommendation to note MacDonald Reserve as the preferred site rather than Parker Reserve.  The motion also noted further consideration would await the study on sports surfaces and open spaces that is scheduled to come back to Council in June 2023, after which it will be “subject to further consideration, community engagement and funding availability.”

A decision on hockey is clearly more complex and the triple bottom line assessment of environmental, social and economic benefits and costs are different to soccer.

Community Tennis Courts conversion to Sand filled Artificial Turf

New synthetic court at Charles Mutton Reserve, April 2023

Merri-bek Council is presently converting all community tennis courts to sand filled artificial turf. There has been no public justification or transparency for this program of conversions that we can find. There has been little if any community engagement in this surface upgrade program for tennis, although tennis clubs may have been consulted. 

Carbon footprint, Microplastics pollution, disposal at end of life are all factors for tennis. Urban heat impact will likely be similar between en-tout-cas (artificial clay surface used widely in Melbourne) and artificial turf. 

The total lifecycle costs from my investigation appear to make artificial turf beneficial from a maintenance and economic total life cycle point of view, however it is likely disposal of tennis artificial turf has not been adequately facted in to total lifecycle costs.. 

There is also an impact on the game and acquiring tennis skills. I don’t think this argument about tennis skills has adequately been considered by Council.

Artificial Turf surfaces in tennis do not provide superior tennis skills say Professionals

Clay court and en-tout-cas surfaces give a wider range of tennis skills which are important if progressing to competition, elite and professional skill levels. 

Former Australian tennis professionals Paul McNamee and Sam Stosur highlight the importance of learning tennis skills on clay, yet Merri-bek Council is ignoring this in wholesale conversion of tennis courts in Merri-bek to synthetic.

Reference: Vivienne Christie, Tennis Australia, (6 June 2021) Clay:Building a Strong Foundation.

“As top players showcase their skills at Roland Garros, major champions Sam Stosur and Paul McNamee note how clay courts provide a superb foundation for skill development.”

McNamee has written a whole book on the superior skills of learning tennis on clay courts: Welcome to the Dance (2021) Merri-bek Council’s conversion program flies in the face of proffessional tennis player concern on skills development.

Climate Action Merribek questioned the lack of consultation and transparency over the program of converting all community tennis courts to artificial surfaces in the submission on the Draft Council Budget 2021/22 in June 2021.  

So what did Royal Park Tennis Club (Melbourne City Council) do regarding upgrading their playing surfaces? They stuck with the clay surface. See an interview with a person from the Royal Park Tennis club at Sydney Road Street Party on Facebook (5 March 2023.

The question of Fluoropolymers and PFAS Chemicals in Artificial Turf

In studies conducted overseas in the US and Europe PFAS class of chemicals, colloquially called “forever chemicals” for bioaccumulation and biopersistence qualities, have been widely found in Synthetic Turf. It is generally acknowledged that PFAS chemicals are required for the polyethylene fibre manufacturing process.

There appears to be no tests to confirm whether Fluoropolymers and PFAS Chemicals are in locally manufactured synthetic turf, but in the absence of any public independant testing, we should assume PFAS is in all synthetic turf in Australia, whether manufactured locally or overseas.

EPA Declines to test synthetic turf, but advises precautionary approach

A request was made by Climate Action Merribek Convenor John Englart to EPA Victoria in September 2022 to consider the overseas research and conduct testing on local synthetic turf. They declined to undertake any tests. The EPA website says that it is part of their role to “monitor the environment for PFAS and other chemicals”.

Question put to the EPA Victoria:

  1. Has EPA Victoria investigated whether synthetic turf is manufactured in Victoria, and do the manufacturers use any PFAS or Fluropolymer chemicals in the manufacturing process?
  2. Do the companies have an import licence to use these chemicals?
  3. Have any synthetic turf pitches in Victoria been tested for fluorine signatures to indicate presence of PFAS class of chemicals in synthetic turf backing, infill and fibres? If not, can this be done with the results made public?
  4. What are the health and environmental implications if PFAS or Fluropolymer chemicals are found in synthetic turf in Victoria, given concerns over PFAS class of chemicals?
  5. If Fluoropolymers or PFAS class of chemicals is detected in synthetic turf pitches, how will that affect Sustainability Victoria’s funded project to recycle end-of-life synthetic pitches? Could substantial further contamination result? How will this be regulated to stop further contamination?

EPA Victoria response on 27 September 2022 failed to answer the questions:

“EPA takes a precautionary approach to PFAS and has rigorous regulations to ensure it is safely managed, transported, and disposed.

“While scientific research continues to be undertaken, EPA, consistent with federal guidelines from the Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth), takes a precautionary approach and advises people to reduce their exposure to PFAS.”

Email response from EPA Victoria

A second email with two follow up questions was sent to EPA Victoria:

  • 1. Are you advising people to take a precautionary approach and not play on any synthetic turf as it may possibily containing PFAS?  
  • 2. What has EPA Victoria done in assessing and managing this environmental threat? (Microplastics from synthetic turf))

The response was again a failure to anser the questions adequately

“EPA consistently conducts research and development (R&D) activities related to emerging contaminants of concern in the environment. This does not include projects specifically targeting fluoropolymers and PFAS in synthetic turf at the present time. However, EPA does have ongoing projects relating to PFAS and microplastics more broadly.”

EPA Victoria response to 2nd email 24 October 2022

So EPA declines to test for PFAS in synthetic turf, so in the absence of any independent testing it is left to people to assume PFAS is contained in all synthetic turf, and therefore “EPA, consistent with federal guidelines from the Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth), takes a precautionary approach and advises people to reduce their exposure to PFAS.”

PFAS and Recycling Synthetic Turf in Australia

Discarded synthetic turf matt at Hosken Reserve

In January 2023 Sustainability Victoria announced $500,000 funding to the Tuff Group to set up recycling of synthetic turf in Australia. A co-contribution of $1,460,945 provided by the Tuff Group for this project.The projected processing capacity is processing capacity of 7,680 tonnes per annum.

Synthetic turf with rubber crumb poses toxicity issues and be difficult to separate from the polyethylene fibres and plastic matting.

However, if Fluuropolymers/PFAS Chemicals are within the Synthetic Turf, any recycling will just further the toxic contamination in whatever recycled or downcycled products are produced, adding to the PFAS crisis we already have. As synthetic turf breaks down into microplastics and nano plastics, PDAS may spread widely in the environment, including by airborne dissemination.

Some indicative detail about what’s in a synthetic pitch:

1.2 tonnes of Zinc, a Neurotoxicant (from Crumb Rubber) in an average soccer pitch – “A typical soccer pitch/field can contain a total of 1.2 tonnes of zinc (assuming the rubber crumb has an average ZnO content of 1.5%). It has been estimated that under natural conditions 10−40% of the Zn could be released from the fine tire debris (<100 μm) mixed in soils within one year.” (Cheng et al 2014) Zinc (Zn) was the prevalent metal found in crumb rubber infill – up to 15,494 mg/kg in CR and 34,170 μg/L in water leachates (Gomes et al 2021)

300 chemicals identified in Crumb Rubber synthetic turf infill, of which nearly 200 are predicted to be carcinogenic and genotoxic. (Xu et al 2019) “majority of these potential carcinogens are not listed in the databases of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) nor the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) due to the absence of toxicological evaluation …This study points to a need to closely examine the potential regulation of the use of CR on playgrounds and artificial fields.”

0.315–17.439 kg of Fluorine per field. Signature chemical that indicates possible presence of PFAS class of chemicals and Fluoropolymers. Samples were from 17 fields in Stockholm, Sweden, a variety of infills including sand and of various ages from different manufacturers. Fluorine detected in every sample of backing, infill and fibres. Authors postulate this problem may be a global issue with synthetic turf. (Lauria et al 2022) PFAS chemicals are  biopersistent and bioaccumulate, called ‘Forever Chemicals’ and scientists now postulate a new planetary boundary of PFAS being exceeded. (Persson et al 2022)

Polyethylene (PE) (Commonly used for artificial turf fibres) Microplastic Particles may contain additives in the manufacture of plastics with toxic potential for health:
Flame retardants – Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) – may contribute to Diabetes, neurobehavioral and developmental disorders, cancer, reproductive health effects, and impaired thyroid function
Pigments: Cadmium (Cd) – Promotes cell apoptosis and DNA methylation, oxidative stress, DNA damage, bone and lung damage, alterations in calcium metabolism, and kidney stone formation.
Titanium (ti) – Decreased cell viability and increased intracellular reactive oxygen species (ROS) cytotoxicity in human lung and colon epithelial cells
Plasticizers – Phthalates (DBP, DEHP) – Endocrine disruption, associated with reproductive toxicity and carcinogenicity. Bisphenol A (BPA) – Endocrine disruptors associated with obesity, fertility problems, cardiovascular disease, reproductive disorders, and breast and prostate cancer. (See Table 2 in Lopez et al March 2023)

Recycling end of life product such as synthetic turf is highly problematic when the recycler will not know the range of chemicals and the toxicity involved, with recycling or downcycling risking spreading toxic contamination further afield.

PFAS chemicals accumulate in the human body. So Inhalation or ingestion over long periods of time from numerous sources can build up toxic health impacts.

So where is the EPA Victoria oversight in regulating synthetic turf recycling process, to prevent any contamination spread?

Climate Action Merribek Articles

Addressing urban heat and burn risk in Playgrounds (September 2, 2022 at 11:29 pm

Making Sports Playing surfaces sustainable (August 29, 2022 at 7:38 pm )

Submission: Moreland Council Budget 2021/22 (June 5, 2021 at 9:04 am) relevant to Tennis Artificial Grass

In the depth of winter an urban heat campaign on Fake Grass launches for Victoria (June 5, 2022 at 3:08 pm

Campaigners prevent Synthetic Pitch for Hosken Reserve (May 15, 2021 at 2:06 am )

Synthetic Turf and the Tragedy of the Commons in Moreland (April 11, 2021 at 4:46 pm )

How will Synthetic turf impact urban heat island and microclimate around Hosken Reserve? (April 3, 2021 at 1:52 am )

Natural grass or Synthetic turf? What are the total life cycle emission profiles (February 28, 2021 at 11:26 pm )

Campaign Leaflets

Microplastics pollution threat fails to be included in Hockey Feasibility study for Moreland Council (FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2022, Climate Citizen)

PFAS, synthetic turf and a new planetary boundary proposed and being exceeded (WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2022, Climate Citizen)

Synthetic turf and microplastics under investigation by NSW Chief Scientist (FRIDAY, AUGUST 26, 2022, Climate Citizen)

Update on Synthetic turf: risk and impacts associated with floods and bushfires (WEDNESDAY, MARCH 9, 2022, Climate Citizen)

Federal Government called to investigate environmental impacts of artificial turf and more environmentally appropriate alternatives for sporting surfaces (FRIDAY, JUNE 25, 2021, Climate Citizen)

Sustainable sports fields are natural turf not synthetic in a time of climate emergency (TUESDAY, APRIL 27, 2021, Climate Citizen)

Statement by John Englart on Synthetic Turf to Moreland Council (FRIDAY, APRIL 16, 2021, Climate Citizen)

Literature Review: Synthetic Turf carbon footprint, environmental, health, microplastics and biodiversity impacts (FRIDAY, APRIL 16, 2021, Climate Citizen)

Annotated Bibliography: Synthetic Turf and Climate, health, biodiversity and microplastics pollution issues (THURSDAY, APRIL 15, 2021, Climate Citizen)

Lack of consultation on synthetic turf at Hosken Reserve Oval has North Coburg residents crying foul, (Posted on October 11, 2020, Sustainable Fawkner) 

Media Articles

Clifton Park synthetic surface is safe, soccer clubs told, Brunswick Voice, Mark Phillips, Sunday, September 4, 2022

Climate debate heats up over synthetic turf, Brunswick Voice, Mark Phillips Friday, August 19, 2022

Turf war treaty: Council keeps some parkland for community use, The Age, Cara Waters, April 19, 2022 — 12.51pm

OPINION – Crowded cities need green grass, not plastic turf, The Age, Duncan Fine, April 20, 2021 — 12.42pm

‘We’re running out of space’: Turf wars heat up over synthetic grass, The Age, Rachel Eddie, April 18, 2021 — 5.00am

State government reviews sports grant to astroturf Coburg North oval, The Age, Rachel Eddie, October 9, 2020 — 11.54am

Coburg North residents blindsided by plans to cover oval in artificial turf, The Age, Rachel Eddie, October 6, 2020 — 12.58pm

Other Resources

Natural Turf Alliance – This is an Australian alliance of organisations campaigning against Synthetic Turf.

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