Stephanie Boyd, the founding director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives, returned to the College on April 15 to present “Let’s Talk Turf: The Environmental and Health Impacts of Turf Fields” at Log Lunch. Boyd, a civil engineer, ceramicist, and current Williamstown Planning Board member, has researched and observed the impacts of artificial turf fields – used recreationally for athletics as an alternative to grass fields across the globe – on the environment. Her talk provided an overview of the byproducts of turf fields, how prolific these technologies are, the limitations when it comes to recycling them, and the College’s own relationship with athletic fields.
Artificial turf is typically composed of a “grass carpet” made out of plastic, which is adhered to a backing material that forms the foundation of the turf. These synthetic grass blades are structurally supported by “infill,” which takes up space between the grass carpet and acts as soil. Infill is commonly made out of sand and “crumb rubber,” the product of recycled rubber tires. With time, sun, and impact, Boyd said, the blades and infill wear off and detach themselves from the artificial turf, blowing away onto the organic ground or catching a ride on the uniforms of athletic players. From here, these microplastics easily make their way into street gutters, storm drains, and ultimately larger bodies of water such as rivers and finally oceans. The health risk of such microplastics – known toxins – is clear, Boyd said. Synthetic blades and crumb rubber deteriorate into smaller and smaller pieces and are ingested by wildlife like fish and birds, or people such as swimmers or athletes who get a mouthful of field or water.
Boyd pointed out that the College’s football field – the only outdoor artificial turf on campus – is closest to the Green River, which is the likely recipient of such plastics. While the College tries to collect and pile up the plastics, they easily blow away, as Boyd showed. Various photos and videos she had taken for the last year showed large amounts of crumb rubber atop snow, and alongside storm drains that led to the river. Boyd pointed to a study in Denmark, that suggested about 150 pounds of plastic are lost from each field per year, a staggering amount considering that the U.S. landscape is covered by an estimated 800,000 million square feet of artificial turf, each of which is composed of an estimated 40,000 pounds of plastic grass and 400,000 pounds of infill material. Due to wear, these fields must be replaced every 8-10 years.
Finally, Boyd pointed to the unclear system of recycling surrounding artificial turfs in the U.S. Though turf organizations and advocates maintain that the fields are fully recyclable, Boyd said that after calling manufacturers and facilities herself, she found that so far, no facility in the U.S. accepts artificial turf fields to recycle – only to dispose or burn, and with a cost tacked on top. As a result, nearly all synthetic turfs across the country are simply sent to landfills, burned, dumped, or abandoned to avoid paying a fee. A handful of facilities in Europe do recycle synthetic turf fields, but they must first be taken apart and separated, a difficult task that seems futile, seeing as there are very few purposes for the output, said Boyd.
The alternatives do not come without their own complications, she added. Organic infill materials such as coconut husks and wood have a tendency to mold, which is combated with environmentally toxic chemical solutions. A potential mitigation strategy would be to provide a specific, closed-off area in fields where athletes can brush off their clothes, and build a dipped buffer or gutter area around the field so that the majority of the microplastics are contained within the immediate area and can be properly disposed of. Boyd suggested that those interested in the topic turn their attention to the two artificial turf fields on campus, which she said were nearing the end of their lifespan.
The audience enjoyed a make-your-own rice bowl lunch, complete with brown rice, black beans, pico de gallo and cucumbers, and caramelized onions. It was accompanied by flatbreads with a beet dip, as well as a yogurt dip. The vegetables were sourced from Mighty Food Farms. Dessert was sticky maple cookies.
BY SABRINE BRISMEUR ‘22.5
Log Lunch is a CES program hosted every Friday at noon. During Log Lunch, a vegetarian meal prepared by Williams students is served, followed by a talk on an environmental topic. Speakers are drawn from both the student body and faculty of Williams, as well as from local, national, and international organizations. Learn more here.