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Keep the Fake Plants and Turf Out of the Surf

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Written by Karli Mylius

A call to action to reduce the use of artificial grass and plants in our cities, preserving natural greenery and its benefits, and cleaning the Ocean. 

Have you ever paused to appreciate the lush greenery in parks or the vibrant, living plants adorning public spaces? These natural elements don’t just beautify our surroundings—they play a crucial role in our well-being and the health of our planet. Yet, in an alarming trend, artificial grass and plants are increasingly replacing natural greenery, causing environmental and health concerns.

Replacing natural greenery with artificial removes such a simple, yet vital component of life keeping us humans healthy and happy – and that is nature.

Artificial grass and plants may seem like a convenient alternative, but most people are unlikely to be aware that these materials are contributing to more plastic pollution ending up in our waterways and Oceans.

We find these, specifically the artificial grass, in almost every single Seabin catch (marine debris captured in a single Seabin unit over a period, usually 24 hours).

In just the first four months of 2024, the Seabin Foundation’s Ocean Health Lab recorded 194 artificial plants and 938 artificial grass fibres (> 5mm) captured in Seabins around Sydney Harbour. Shockingly, this represents only 10.27% of what Seabins are capturing daily, and this would equate to approximately 1,992 artificial plants and 9,633 artificial grass fibres captured in all the 32 Seabins in four months, which again, is only a sample of what’s entering the Harbour. This suggests the amount of artificial plants and grass polluting our waterways and the Ocean is much, much higher.

A study titled “The dark side of artificial greening: Plastic turfs as widespread pollutants of aquatic environments” by de Hann et al (2023), found that artificial turf fibres made up 15% of marine debris in a one-year study in Spains waterways and coast. This research highlights a significant environmental issue: synthetic fibres are prevalent in our rivers and seas, particularly on the sea surface.

Why does natural greenery matter?

Natural grass are carbon sinks, contributing to cleaner air by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.

Grass grows in soil, and both support biodiversity and local ecosystems, as well as providing a natural space for rainwater to infiltrate and not adding to stormwater runoff (Sydney Water, 2011).

It provides cities with relief of the urban heat island effect and does not contribute to any plastic pollution in our waterways and Oceans.

It also gives everyone a much-needed, and appreciated connection with some nature in their everyday lives within built-up cities and suburbs.

Why are we replacing these small patches of nature we all appreciate so much, with plastic?

Seabin Foundation hopes to raise awareness of artificial grass and plants, from an environmental perspective, as well as to encourage local councils, government, businesses and individuals to think about the necessity of these materials, and the consequences of making it a habit to choose them over natural greenery.

As part of our education campaign, we are focusing on 3 communities that have exposure to artificial greenery: venues and events, sporting fields and schools and playgrounds. We want to gain insight into their own understanding and knowledge about why these materials have become increasingly popular.

Decorating events and venues

The biophilia hypothesis, promoted in the 1960’s by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, describes the innate drive humans have to be amongst nature and all that is alive. Further denoted by American Biologist Edward O Wilson as “the rich, natural pleasure that comes from being surrounded by living organisms”. Humans being drawn and attracted to nature, such as greenery, is more instinctual than we might realise, and there is an abundance of qualitative research showing this to be true. It is no surprise that we seek greenery to decorate our living spaces to make it feel more like a home, and why businesses add greenery into offices to increase their employee’s general wellbeing. Venues and event spaces are often decorated with greenery, likely to make them more appealing and attract customers.

Artificial plants have been around since Ancient Chinese, Roman and Egyptian civilisations, however they used to be made from other bio-materials, like silk and wax. Nowadays, they are solely made from plastics, and seem to have replaced natural greenery as a more ‘convenient’ decorative material in many venues and event spaces.

Whilst looking at artificial plants from afar might promote some sense of a positive feeling, as it tries to replicate natural plants, the benefits we get from natural greenery cannot by replicated by artificial alternatives. In addition to our ‘biophilia’ instincts, research has shown many psycho-physiological benefits in humans when they are viewing natural greenery, including lowering heart rates, anxiety and stress levels, boosting moods, productivity, and creativity (Chan et al., 2021).

For event organisers, venues and retailers, opting for natural greenery over artificial can significantly enhance the overall ambiance and experience for customers, attendees and staff. It also helps businesses align with sustainability goals and demonstrate a commitment to environmental responsibility, as real greenery improves air quality and helps to counteract climate change, whilst you are also reducing plastic pollution caused by the artificial alternatives.

The Sporting Community’s Role

The shift towards artificial grass in sports fields has sparked concern for the long-term health of the players, mostly in the EU. The Netherlands have set a target to phase out artificial grass football fields, beginning from 2030, due to the health risks being associated with the rubber infill that support the artificial grass. Called ‘rubber crumb’ and made from recycled tires, EU scientists have found samples during toxicology studies to contain hazardous compounds and some exceeding safety levels set by the EU for cancer-causing chemicals (Armada et al., 2022).

Research on the impacts of artificial grass on human health and on the environment, whilst still limited, is growing worldwide, however in New South Wales the construction of these artificial sports fields has increased from 24 in 2014, to 30 in 2018, to 181 in 2022 (Chief Scientist & Engineer, NSW., 2022). – a 754% increase in just 8 years.

A study on Swedish artificial grass fields estimated each field (typically between 6500 and 7000 square meters) was expected to release approximately 550 kg’s of microplastic granules from the rubber infill, each year. It was estimated this puts these artificial grass sports fields as the second biggest land-based source of microplastics being polluted into the environment, the first being the granules coming from car and truck tyres (Brodén, E., 2022). For the New South Wales 181 artificial fields, this would equate to around 100 tones of microplastics polluting the environment and entering waterways, each year.

The importance of sports for the wellbeing and health of people is undeniable, of course, however we need the government to recognise these statistics and limit the construction of more artificial grass sporting fields, especially those outdoors and near waterways.

Schools and Playgrounds

Schools and playgrounds can be natural learning environments if we choose them to be. Natural grassy areas give children the chance to be exposed to some nature in their everyday lives, supplementing classroom learning with outdoor learning, promoting physical activity and play. Interacting with natural environments proves beneficial for children’s wellbeing, including cognitive and sensory development, improving memory and concentration, fostering creativity and imagination, and has even been shown to boost their self-esteem (Turner et al., 2020, Gaw et al., 2015). Children psychologists have been recommending all childcare facilities and schools provide children with access to the natural environment for a long time, and keeping natural grass in outdoor spaces is an easy way to do this.

They also serve as outdoor classrooms where children can observe and learn about the intricate ecosystems that exist in their backyards and neighbourhoods. Some of my favourite memories from primary school were sitting on the grass with friends during lunchtime, watching the little beetles walk over the blades of grass, the magpies foraging for insects, enjoying the earthy smells which change from season to season, hearing the bird calls, seeing butterflies in spring, giggling while picking up cicada shells and placing them on each other’s back, and running around on our hands and knees playing games. Even if trees and bushes are still around, the grass plays a pivotal role in nurturing these ecosystems. Artificial grass simply does not provide these experiences and is taking away what I believe to be joyful and formative memories from childhood.

On a physical health perspective, artificial grass exposes children to PFAS chemicals (which are becoming increasingly alarming due to the carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting chemicals), a higher risk of burns on hot days as well as in general due to its abrasive nature, and these cuts and grazes from artificial grass have even shown to significantly increase the likelihood of contracting a Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection (ScienceDaily, 2004).

Given all the benefits from natural greenery as well as the health concerns associated with artificial grass, having better awareness allows people to make more informed choices to provide better environments for children to enjoy in playgrounds and schools.

How is artificial grass disposed of?

An article addressing the new doubts on the safety of artificial turf mentions the University of Virginia (USA) dumped 199 tons of artificial turf into a landfill (WVTF, 2022). This is the standard fate of artificial turf, with most turfs lasting approximately 10 to 15 years.

Artificial turf includes the synthetic grass fibres, usually made from plastics, either polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene (PE), the infill layer which the fibres are attached too, often made from recycled tire rubber (styrene butadiene rubber (SBR)), and a backing usually made of Polyurethane. These non-biodegradable materials, and the challenging separation processes required to recycle the PP and PE makes sustainable disposal challenging, and most artificial turf ends up in landfill. This SBR is the material research has shown to be hazardous and carcinogenic, and it is estimated that 75% of sports fields in Australia use this (Chief Scientist & Engineer, NSW, 2022).

Some companies have what they claim to be 100% recyclable turf available, with all layers made from the same plastic polymer, however these are rare and these are marketed as being sustainable, eco-friendly – which no plastic is. The Chief Scientist & Engineer, NSW (2022) review mentions these recycling facilities are still under development, at least in Australia. Companies marketing artificial turf as eco-friendly, claiming it is healthier for children compared with natural grass, supportive of wildlife or any other sustainable claim are simply green washing, trying to sell a product. The pollution of the artificial grass and other layers is also missed in the eco-friendly marketing.

A Call to Action

It’s time to advocate for the preservation and restoration of natural greenery in our urban spaces, here’s how you can make a difference:

  1. Choose Natural Greenery: Opt for real plants and grass in your own gardens and business spaces.
  2. Support Local Policies: Lobby for local governments to ban artificial grass and plants in public spaces and events, and to reduce the construction of new synthetic sports fields.
  3. Spread the word: Talk to people about it within your networks to raise awareness and encourage others to also make more sustainable choices.

 

We understand it’s not always possible to replace all artificial plants and turf with real plants and grass, perhaps due to cost or low light spaces, and that’s ok. You can also follow the below guidelines which can still help to reduce the amount of artificial grass and plants ending up in the waterways and Ocean.

  • Limiting the use of these plastic materials being used in outdoor spaces and events, especially those along foreshores, around Harbours and close to other waterways.
  • Opting for durable, larger leafed fake plants instead of smaller fragile ones and opting for a durable, large fake plant which can be reused over.
  • The constant friction from walking on artificial grass can easily cause the plastic grass blades and rubber to separate and blow away, so it’s best to avoid artificial grass in all event/venue settings.
  • If artificial grass and plants are used, keep them out of any sunlight as UV exposure causes plastics to become brittle and break apart easier.
  • Banning artificial grass and plants used as decoration on boats. These are especially susceptible to ending up as plastic pollution in the water, due to the high foot traffic during those events, high winds, UV exposure, and of course being in extremely close proximity to the water.
  • Ideally artificial turf grass use in outdoor settings would be banned by councils, as these are producing the most plastic pollution, and if artificial plants are used, they can be kept indoors where quality and durable plastic is used so the product can last a long time, and real plants replace any greenery for outdoor settings.

References

Armada, D., Llompart, M., Celeiro, M., Garcia-Castro, P., Ratola, N., Dagnac, T. and de Boer, J. (2022). Global evaluation of the chemical hazard of recycled tire crumb rubber employed on worldwide synthetic turf football pitches. Science of The Total Environment, 812, 152542. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.152542.

Brodén, E. (2022). Microplastic pollution from artificial turf: An overview of granule emissions, their impact on marine environments, and measures to reduce and prevent pollution. KIMO Sweden.

Chan, S.H.M., Qiu, L., Esposito, G. and Mai, K.P. (2021). Vertical greenery buffers against stress: Evidence from psychophysiological responses in virtual reality. Landscape and Urban Planning, 213, 104127. doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2021.104127.

Chief Scientist & Engineer, NSW. (2022). Independent review into the design, use and impacts of synthetic turf in public open spaces. Retrieved from https://www.chiefscientist.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/542263/CSE-Synthetic-Turf-Review-Final-Report.pdf

de Haan, W.P., Quintana, R., Vilas, C., Cózar, A., Canals, M., Uviedo, O., Sanchez-Vidal, A., 2023. The dark side of artificial greening: Plastic turfs as widespread pollutants of aquatic environments. Environmental Pollution, Volume 334, 1 October 2023, 122094. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749123010965

Gaw, S., Thomas, K.V. and Hutchinson, T.H. (2015). Sources, impacts and trends of pharmaceuticals in the marine and coastal environment. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369(1656), p.20130572. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/bf03400925 [Accessed 19 June 2024].

ScienceDaily, 2004. Body shaving and turf burns spread infection. [online] Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041108022715.htm [Accessed 8 July 2024].

Sydney Water, 2011. Best practice guidelines for holistic open space turf management in Sydney. [pdf] Available at: https://www.sydneywater.com.au/content/dam/sydneywater/documents/best-practice-guidelines-for-holistic-open-space-turf-management-in-sydney.pdf [Accessed 20 June 2024].

Turner, P.A., Van Hout, H.T., Roberts, C.K. and Kim, G.H. (2020). Synthetic turf: health and environmental impacts. Environmental Health, 19(1), 68. doi:10.1186/s12940-020-00629-w. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7424505/ [Accessed 19 June 2024].

WVTF, 2022. New study casts doubt on safety of synthetic turf. Available at: https://www.wvtf.org/news/2022-03-15/new-study-casts-doubt-on-safety-of-synthetic-turf [Accessed 20 June 2024]

How to get involved

There are over 1000 Seabins around the world, all contributing to the global Pollution index, so contact us here to find out where the closest Seabin location to you may be and how you can get involved on our mission for cleaner oceans.

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