Jane Conrad, a South Orange-Maplewood resident, previously expressed her thoughts on natural grass versus artificial turf fields in this piece, Opinion: Let’s Make Ritzer and Underhill Fields Sustainable Grass Classrooms. Conrad has submitted this follow-up essay in light of the vote to be taken on the $160M+ in bonds for the Long Range Facilities Plan by the South Orange-Maplewood Board of School Estimate tonight at 7 p.m. at 525 Academy Street in Maplewood.
1) Where is the plan to responsibly dispose of (recycle) the artificial turf field we already own, and how much will that cost? Profeta/Underhill Field, at the end of its life, consists of a) a 50,000 pound “rug” of mixed plastics (difficult or impossible to recycle), and 450,000 pounds of Nike Grind infill, a kind of rubber crumb. Several of those who spoke in favor of artificial turf at the June Board of Ed meeting expressed an intention to NOT send this material to a landfill or incinerator. Great! How are you going to do it? If it turns out there really is no way to recycle this material, do you still feel justified in ordering up another 1,000,000 pounds of it? The fact is, the cost of just cutting up and removing this one existing field, and paying hauling and landfill fees, will probably exceed $200,000 – which is ten times the annual cost of paying a contractor to maintain a grass field with organic methods.
2) There are NO great alternatives as far as “infill” material for artificial turf. Turf proponents seem to want to delay any discussion of which infill to use until after funds are appropriated. However, responsible decision makers must consider this issue up front. This is the main product we are buying by volume (450,000 pounds), and after 8-10 years, we will have to dispose of it somehow. We simply cannot evaluate the cost, health risks and environmental impact of installing artificial turf without discussing this.
Coated sand and clinoptilolite zeolite have been mentioned as possibilities.
Among the problems with acrylic/polymer coated silica sand:
a) Not all the silica (a carcinogen) remains encapsulated in the plastic coating; some escapes as dust and can be breathed. For example, Envirofill’s product warranty admits 20% will escape.
b) Envirofill, Durafill and other coated sand products are infused with Microban, an antibacterial which is a trade name for triclosan. Triclosan is a compound banned in soap because it is an endocrine disruptor and associated with liver and inhalation toxicity. The Washington, D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation determined Envirofill to be too unsafe to install in city parks.
c) As coated sand abrades, it disperses microplastics into the environment.
d) As a mixed material, coated sand will be difficult or impossible to recycle.
Clinoptilolite zeolite, which exists in both volcanic and sedimentary form, is one of several forms of the mineral zeolite. Because it is porous, absorbent, and bonds with ammonia, it is commercially available for use in pet litter boxes, among other applications.
A central issue with clinoptilolite zeolite for use on artificial turf playing fields is: What are the risks to players of breathing zeolite dust? In view of “the high dusting potential “ of clinoptilolite zeolite, the European Food Safety Authority “considers it prudent to treat the additive as an irritant to the skin and eyes, a dermal sensitizer and an inhalation toxicant.” The material safety data sheet for the zeolite offered by a sports field infill supplier cautions: “Avoid dust – use NIOSH approved respirator where dust occurs;” “Avoid contact with eyes, skin, and clothing. Avoid generating and breathing dust.”
3) Even with minimal care (mowing), Ritzer Field is looking pretty good. Go take a look! In fact, on June 15 the only noticeably worn areas were directly in front of a soccer goal which cannot be moved. Why not simply acquire a moveable goal, so that play can be rotated to fresh grass, allowing worn areas to recover?
I encourage everyone, especially decision-makers, to go stand on Ritzer, and then on an artificial turf field, during the coming 90 degree weather. Consider: Will the coaches of the July-August soccer camps on Ritzer really expect kids to play on artificial turf that reaches 150 degrees Fahrenheit or more? And if artificial turf can’t be played on in hot weather, then installing more of it just means that our existing grass fields will be used more, not less.
Finally, at the June Board of Ed meeting, a turf proponent implied that a decision to install artificial turf could easily be reversed. “Let’s try it; if it doesn’t work out, we’ll try something else.” Not so fast.
Soil is not “infill.” It is not an inert medium whose only function is to hold grass blades upright. Soil is a living ecosystem, in which humus, earthworms, saprophytes, mycorrhizae and other microorganisms interact symbiotically with plants in ways that regulate nutrient availability, control soil moisture, and suppress disease.
When you install artificial turf, all grass and soil must be removed, down to a hard, immobile layer, which is further compacted, “stabilized” with a layer of concrete or fly ash, or layered with various grades of stone and stone dust. The plastic grass rug and rubber or sand infill go on top of this.
If you later decide to go back to grass, you will have to import topsoil. Since excavation destroys macro- and microorganisms, this soil will be dead. It will take time, money and skill to restore a functioning soil community.
It is far easier to destroy a natural system than it is to reconstruct it once it is gone. Impaired systems can, however, be improved. This is what some high school students and parents have tried to do with a couple of worn areas on Ritzer since June 15. The total person-hours spent on this (about 5), is the same amount a 20-person class or sports team could contribute in one 15 minute work session. The results so far (not perfect, but a step in the right direction) can be seen in the accompanying before-and-after photographs. They suggest what could be accomplished with a ‘sustainable fields’ program that includes school composting and student-led targeted field repair.