The dark side of artificial greening: Plastic turfs as widespread pollutants of aquatic environments

Scientists find that pieces of “artificial” plastic grass can make up a large proportion of plastic pollution in the seawater off the coasts of Spain. The concentration of artificial grass fibers on the sea surface in some of these areas was measured as high as 213,200 fibers per square kilometer. The scientists expect that Barcelona’s large population (around 1.7 million people) and the sizable number of synthetic sports fields in Barcelona may explain the results.

Abstract: Artificial turf (AT) is a surfacing material that simulates natural grass by using synthetic, mainly plastic, fibers in different shapes, sizes and properties. AT has spread beyond sports facilities and today shapes many urban landscapes, from private lawns to rooftops and public venues. Despite concerns regarding the impacts of AT, little is known about the release of AT fibers into natural environment. Here, for the first time, we specifically investigate the presence of AT fibers in river and ocean waters as major conduits and final destination of plastic debris transported by water runoff. Our sampling survey showed that, AT fibers – composed mainly of polyethylene and polypropylene – can constitute over 15% of the mesoplastics and macroplastics content, suggesting that AT fibers may contribute significantly to plastic pollution. Up to 20,000 fibers a day flowed down through the river, and up to 213,200 fibers per km2 were found floating on the sea surface of nearshore areas. AT, apart from impacting on urban biodiversity, urban runoff, heat island formation, and hazardous chemical leaching, is a major source of plastic pollution to natural aquatic environments.

In “Global evaluation of the chemical hazard of recycled tire crumb rubber employed on worldwide synthetic turf football pitches,” a study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment in March 2022, a team of researchers in Europe sheds light on the serious health and environmental hazards plastic grass poses. With research spanning 17 countries and 4 continents, the scientists show plastic grass creates microplastic pollution and contains toxic compounds such as PAHs, plasticizers, and vulcanizers, with some of the more than 90 fields sampled showing levels of dangerous PAH exceeding the European Chemicals Agency’s set exposure limits. They identify plastic grass as an emerging environmental contaminant that may best be replaced by cork or potentially other natural nontoxic materials.