The Chief Scientist’s report, Synthetic Turf Study in Public Open Spaces has finally been released but fails to give definitive guidance.
Main conclusion is wrong – we cannot treat synthetic turf as an experiment!
The report developed a set of recommendations that it states will (p vii):
allow NSW to adopt an accelerated ‘learn and adapt’ approach to the use of synthetic turf under NSW conditions … If applied, they will allow NSW to set the scene over the next decade, using new fields as a testbed to contribute to innovation and data-driven decisions.
This statement is totally at odds with the precautionary principle. New synthetic fields should not be approved if the major issues cannot be addressed.
The Natural Turf Alliance is calling for the NSW government to put a stop to all plans for synthetic turf on playing fields until there is sufficient information to enable more evidence-based decision making processes. It is only right to take a precautionary approach to ensure that there are no regrettable long-term impacts on human health and the environment. Also, many of the highlighted issues could have significant financial consequences.
In the meantime, there is an urgent need to upgrade some playing fields, and natural turf can be used. Councils are already managing hundreds of natural grass fields. There are ways of doing a better job of upgrading and maintaining these fields. The report acknowledges this but then says nothing more.
There has been considerable community concern about the installation of synthetic turf on playing fields, particularly in environmentally sensitive locations, and bad experiences with the planning process. Following a public enquiry in early 2021 that amplified these issues, in November 2021, Rob Stokes (then) Minister for Planning and Public Spaces, asked the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer to provide an independent review into the design, use and impacts of synthetic turf in public open spaces.
It was promised in mid-2022. It took the Greens to issue a standing order in the Legislative Council for it to be finally released on 9 June 2023. The report was dated 13 October 2022. Who was trying to hide the results? Was it the Minister for Planning, Anthony Roberts whose desk it was sitting on? The excuse given was it that was ‘cabinet-in-confidence’ and consultation was taking place with councils and sporting bodies about the guidelines that should be issued for synthetic turf installations. In the meantime lots of decisions are being made without this information.
What the report says about natural turf
The first item of the terms of reference is:
- Identify, describe and provide advice on:
(a) key scientific and technical issues associated with the use of synthetic turf compared with grass surfaces in public spaces
The report states (p v.):
Best practice guidelines for improving the performance of natural turf have been developed in NSW. If applied to installation and ongoing management of natural turf sporting fields, these practices may allow increased performance of natural turf fields to meet demand.
In the more detailed discussion of the recommendations, in reference to an example of the guidelines developed for the Lower Hunter, the report states that analysis in the guidelines reported:
that when lifecycle costs and carrying capacity were considered, natural turf fields built to best practice were more cost effective than alternative options including synthetic turf.
Nowhere in the report is there a comparison of the scientific and technical issues that apply to the use of natural grass and synthetic turf. It is frustrating that there is no discussion about making a choice between the two. They are treated as separate entities.
Natural turf is already proven to be a better option
At the community forum organised by the Natural Turf Alliance on 23 June the speakers demonstrated that natural turf will be successful in terms of available playing hours if the correct soil preparation and drainage system is applied. Councils just have to improve their practices.
Demand for synthetic turf
According to the report, which is at least a year out of date, there are currently about 181 synthetic turf fields in NSW in public and private (eg schools) spaces. This compares with about 30 in 2018. The support for these installations has been driven by the soccer associations that are arguing that available playing hours are too restricted on grass fields to meet demand. This has been the case in the past couple of years that were abnormally wet.
Demand is increasing with population growth and it is argued by the soccer associations that the game is becoming more popular as women are taking up the game.
There are other arguments about several issues such as relative life cycle cost and water use that still being debated.
The concerns about use of synthetic turf
The report describes many issues with the use of synthetic turf and many where more research is required.
Many synthetic sports fields in NSW feature long synthetic blades supported by infill, the most commonly used infill is styrene butadiene rubber crumb sourced from recycled tyres. The crumb is imported and there is a lack of information about potential contaminants such as heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Currently, there is insufficient information and a lack of standards about the materials and chemical composition of synthetic turf. Other types of infill such as cork, are being used in newer fields but the review does not provide detail about these.
Longevity of synthetic fields
Overall, it is not clear how Australian climatic conditions will affect expectations about the longevity and carrying capacity of synthetic fields compared with overseas experience that is the basis of current decision making about installation and cost-benefit considerations.
Practices and standards for recycling and disposal are changing locally and overseas. Australia banned the export of waste tyres including tyre crumb from January 2022 so this component of synthetic turf has to be recycled locally or sent to landfill. The process of separating turf into components that are reusable is highly complex. Plans for a recycling facility near Albury have not yet been established.
Heat impacts are a priority area for research. The commissioned reports and literature review did not identify major health risks associated with the use of synthetic turf, although it was noted that significant knowledge gaps remain and research should prioritise the potential health impacts of chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and some heavy metals. The health impacts of the high heat levels of synthetic turf are not discussed in detail but the closure of fields in hot weather is canvassed especially for younger children.
The report notes that per- and poly-fluoroalkyl compounds have been found in low concentrations in the turf blades and base carpet. They create a risk of cumulative harm to aquatic and soil life, the environment and ultimately human health.
Social and wellbeing effects
Important considerations for planners and councils will vary with each site and include reduction in community access, odours from synthetic materials and increased artificial light.
Many potential impacts are raised that need to be mitigated. Microplastics and infill have entered waterways. Design guidelines are now in force to control leakage but their success still needs to be monitored. Older fields have been observed to lose a lot of rubber crumb especially as they age. The impact of escaping infill and turf fibre (microplastics) on local soil and ecology needs to be researched.
Fragmentation of animal habitat and disruption of ecological functions will occur through the loss of natural grass, increase in heat and additional light at night. The report states that synthetic turf is unsuitable for locations with flood and bushfire risk or in sensitive ecological locations.
Community groups concerned about the increasing use of synthetic turf have highlighted several issues. Many of these are the subject of recommendations in the report.
1. Planning approval process
In most cases a development approval process is not required from the local council. The assessment required is a Review of Environmental Factors (REF) subject to requirements defined in the Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulations.
The report looked at a sample of REFs and found many gaps in coverage of these requirements, for example:
- climate change impacts on surface heat and stormwater
- impact of impermeable surface on soil health
- waste disposal at the end of life of the turf
- micro and nano-plastic contamination
- impact of increased light and heat on fauna outside the footprint of the field
The approval process does not provide clear requirements for community consultation. The report highlights this gap in the process:
Early community engagement that continues through the planning period enables discussion and representation of all stakeholders.
2. Mitigating environmental risk
A plan is needed for the development of appropriate standards for best practice installation and use, consistency with net zero targets and end-of-life solutions via industry engagement with government and researchers.
In addition, fields in proximity to sensitive ecosystems should be independently assessed to assist with management of identified environmental issues. Risk assessments should be undertaken so that synthetic fields are not approved in areas of high environmental risk including bushfire prone areas or those with higher likelihood of flooding.
3. Future data and research
The report recognises that the scale of public investment in sporting infrastructure requires a more systematic and data-driven approach to decision-making. There is a vast amount of existing information from different sources about the design, management and performance of sporting fields, but these are not readily available or collated. A more accessible and reliable source of verified information is required.
Data collection should be complemented by the research program to address key knowledge gaps in human health and environmental impacts. A key research priority is understanding the characteristics and composition, including the chemical composition, of materials used in synthetic turf and associated layers.