I was undecided about the use of artificial turf on athletic fields when I went to last week’s meeting of the Bainbridge Island School Board. I’m a soccer, football and lacrosse mom. I understand the advantages of plastic over natural turf in lower maintence costs for cash-starved school districts, and increased resilience that allows year-round play in our soggy climate.
But I also appreciate the environmental concerns raised by Bainbridge parents like Sarah Lane, whose thoughtful essays on the hazards of artificial turf (and other environmental topics) appear on her blog, on a ledge.
Several board members seemed intrigued by artificial-turf opponent Chris Van Dyke’s suggestion for a voter initiative that would increase island sales tax by a half-penny to raise money for the maintenance of natural turf fields. But in the end, the board approved the plan to install artificial turf on the high school athletic field.
I came away from the meeting thinking the school board may have handed the community an opportunity for compromise: the island’s only stadium field can have artificial turf and we’ll bring the rest of our fields up to snuff with natural turf.
Then I read about plastic in “The World Without Us,” Alan Weisman’s best-selling thought experiment about what would happen to the Earth if humans disappeared. There’s a reason plastic holds up so well to athletes and bad weather. It turned my stomach–and turned me completely against plastic fields.
For the first time I focused on the fact, made abundantly clear in the book, that plastic never biodegrades. That’s right. Never. At least not in any time frame that’s meaningful to human beings.
Quoting from the book:
Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated…every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last 50 years or so still remains. It’s somewhere in the environment.
Although plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it does photodegrade, breaking down into ever finer particles. But even single molecules aren’t digestible, so until some microbe finds a way to digest it, plastic will persist in the environment.
In spite of the torrent of plastic products manufactured since World War II, plastic accounts for only about 20% of what’s in our landfills, in part because it can be compressed so tightly. So where does it go?
It ends up in the ocean. Refuse from all over the Pacific Rim blows from garbage trucks, landfills and spilled shipping containers, sails down rivers and washes down storm drains to create the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a swirling mass of garbage caught in ocean currents, estimated to be about 10 million square miles, and rapidly growing.
Scientists are finding plastic in the ocean’s tiniest creatures and all the way up the food chain. As marine consultant Curtis Ebbesmeyer said in a Seattle P-I article last year, “There’s no effective way to remove the plastic pollution, whether it’s in chunks or microscopic bits. Researchers say the solution is keeping it out of the water in the first place. And there’s good reason to do so: It’s on our dinner plates.”
It’s hard to read stuff like this, thinking about the cell phone and computer I’m not going to give up (and that I’ll replace every few years). Car parts, packaging of all kinds. Food containers. Most of my life’s conveniences. You can bet I’ll be looking for alternatives to plastic from now on.
But in any home, you’d be hard pressed to come up with an acre of plastic (actually more, because plastic is used underneath the turf too) in a single purchase. With public funds.
So what happens to the plastic in our new field at the end of its 10-year lifespan? Could I at least assuage my guilt knowing it’s all recycled, so less plastic is manufactured to begin with?
I contacted the Association of Artificial and Synthetic Grass Installers who wrote in an email:
After it is seen more “useful” days and needs to be replaced, today’s artificial grass surfaces are generally taken to “recyclers” that will take the turf fibers off the top of
the surface backings–those fibers are then REUSED in a variety of different products – just like plastic bottles can be reused and repurposed into fabrics (fleece and such)
so about 75% of its mass are recaptured for other uses.
Somehow, this doesn’t make me feel any better. The twenty-five percent (of more than an acre) that isn’t made into other plastic products–plus the any plastic in the backing, which is dumped–is still one heck of a lot of new plastic that we, the parents and citizens of Bainbridge Island, are bringing into the world. And some of it will undoubtedly swirl in the Pacific when today’s young soccer players are having kids of their own.
Ah well. The decision is made. As of last week, Van Dyke was vowing to fight on (see his comment to this post), bringing a real alternative to the debate, with as much as $700,000 a year in revenue for natural fields from his half-penny tax.
This is one soccer mom who’s signing his initiative.
This report was sent to me by the Association of Artificial and Synthetic Grass Installers, and referenced in my second comment below: sullivanreport.pdf