The all-weather surface that simply isn’t

The all-weather surface that simply isn’t

by PETER HEHIR

 

The environmental argument for retaining grass wherever possible, especially those grass covered sporting fields that presently exist, is overwhelming. What is not widely known however, are the health risks from injuries caused to players of all ages, especially young kids, when using artificial grass surfaces.

And what is even more surprising is the little known fact that the supposed “all-weather surfaces” aren’t “all-weather” at all!

The above photographs taken by Garnet Brownbill show the Tempe Reserve Synthetic Field closed following a heavy downpour. This is not the first time this has happened. The latest closure was about eight weeks ago on the 7th of April. The brown material randomly spread all over the surface is cork infill that has been washed from the plastic grass. Much of this had previously ended up polluting the Cooks River as a result of earlier similar rain events.

This ground is under the control of the Inner West Council. The field was unplayable for a few days while the surface was uniformly respread with the washed out cork infill. The results of the rectification and the mandatory Clegg impact test, confirming that the surface is only then suitable to be played on, can take up to a week or more. These reinstatement efforts come at a not insubstantial cost. The replacement cork alone costs $5,000/tonne.

In relation to the injuries, the Sydney Spine and Sports Centre have stated that, “Over the past year Balmain chiropractors have seen a steady increase in the amount of adolescent knee injuries following both training and competition on artificial turf soccer fields”.  They go on to state that, “In our opinion, there is limited information from local councils on the risk of playing sports such as soccer and football on artificial turf fields.”

Sports injuries on artificial turf surfaces come about because of increased rotational traction. Athletes describe the moment of injury as a feeling of “getting stuck”. This can and does result in serious damage to the ligaments of the knee. Anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus tears are common rotational injuries caused by playing on plastic grass surfaces.

Kids using these artificial surfaces, who are not involved in sport, are also highly susceptible to these knee injuries.

They occur because artificial turf increases the load on the knees. It’s this valgus load and the internal rotation that does the damage. These injuries often require surgery to repair. And they can keep athletes out of competition for the rest of the season. With serious injuries rehabilitation can take significantly longer.

From a purely environmental perspective, plastic grass on playing fields simply can’t be justified. Synthetic surfaces are incredibly resource depleting during manufacture, extremely expensive to install, easily damaged, simple to vandalise and are rendered unusable for some days following heavy rain.

The much lauded “all-weather surface” isn’t at all what it’s cracked up to be. Just like natural grass, the grounds are often closed following a heavy downpour. Well-draining grounds with natural grass can often be played on the following day. The same can’t be said for the synthetic grounds that are closed due to a significant rain event.

These surfaces are also very costly to maintain and repair. Because they don’t absorb moisture they contribute to stormwater runoff. And they are hostile to humans, animals, insects and microbial biota, are incompatible with many sporting codes, and they often cause the serious injuries described above.

What’s even more concerning is that they are also a proven and preventable source of the spread of microplastics in the environment. Real grass is one of the biggest oxygen producers on the planet. It’s second only to phytoplankton. Real grass also absorbs carbon dioxide and many airborne pollutants. One acre of grass not only sequesters carbon, but it also releases enough oxygen to sustain about 70 humans.

Another often overlooked and very serious issue relates to the increase in urban heat due to the replacement of grass with synthetic turf. From an environmental perspective, the climate crisis demonstrates that there is a clearly an urgent need to reclaim urban hard surfaces with both grass and trees. This is an effective way to reduce urban heat and the incidence of hyperthermia.

What is even more alarming is that surface temperatures on synthetic turf in Sydney can also reach near boiling point. A temperature of around 60° C can cause third degree burns in a matter of seconds.

The following time dated photograph was taken at 1.48pm on the 14th December 2023 at the Tempe Reserve Synthetic Field by Garnet Brownbill. The indicated surface temperature was a mind-boggling 86.5° C!

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There is presently a campaign underway by the ALP Mayor of the Inner West to replace a significant portion of the recently grassed areas in the Rozelle Parklands with plastic grass. A letterbox drop from Darcy Byrne on the 6th of June states that this artificial turf is “an essential improvement”.

The mayor is well aware that TfNSW is opposed to plastic grass in the Rozelle Parklands. Greater Sydney Parklands have also received a great many submissions opposing any artificial turf in Callan Park. It’s been suggested by the mayor’s many critics that his campaign is simply in order to shore up his electoral position with the very vocal soccer lobby. They are by no means representative of the wider sporting community.

Australia’s four major sporting codes are all incompatible with artificial turf – rugby league, rugby union, Australian Rules and cricket. Local cricketers and rugby league players are outraged at the very real possibility of being excluded from grounds that they have played on for decades. They have been fiercely lobbying the IWC  to stop synthetic grass from being installed.

These sporting bodies are acutely aware that synthetic grass would make the grounds unplayable,  leading to the inevitable exclusion of their respective codes. Local kids seeking to play cricket and rugby would be denied the opportunity.

All sporting bodies, and the IWC, are well aware that they have a legal responsibility to exercise their duty of care. And not just to the environment, but also to the players that they represent, and to the residents who pay rates in the expectation of reasonable access to truly green amenities.

The Parkland’s passive recreators also shouldn’t be denied a voice. They are the majority of the Parklands users. And they don’t have a lobby group to represent them. The Parkland is there for everyone. This has always been the position of the Rozelle Lilyfield Resident Action Group. We have been lobbying for a park in the old Rozelle goods yard since the RLRAG was formed in the seventies, long before the mayor was born.

Whichever way you look at it, in terms of cost, preventable knee, concussion and burn injuries, alienation of many park users, increasing urban heat loads and irreparable environmental damage; replacing natural grass fields with artificial turf is an extremely expensive, incredibly stupid and a very misguided project to embark upon.

 

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