News / Environment

Climate debate heats up over synthetic turf

A consultant will be paid $30,000 to look at alternatives to artificial grass but one councillor has described it as “a waste of money”

Clifton Park in Brunswick has artificial turf on its soccer pitch.

Mark Phillips
Friday, August 19, 2022

THE future of an artificial grass soccer pitch at Clifton Park in Brunswick will come under scrutiny after Moreland Council decided to spend $30,000 on a consultant to investigate alternatives to synthetic surfaces used on open spaces around the city.

Councillors voted last week to conduct a review of all surfaces on sports grounds amid growing concern about the adverse climate and environmental impacts of artificial turf.

The review is a pet project of Mayor Mark Riley and comes after the council rejected an artificial surface on a new soccer pitch at Hosken Reserve in Coburg North last year because of community opposition.

It also follows the launch of a new statewide campaign, Turf Out Fake Grass, at Clifton Park in June, which was attended by two Moreland Greens councillors, James Conlan and Adam Pulford.

Councillors approved the $30,000 expenditure on a consultant at their meeting on August 10, over-riding objections from Deputy Mayor Lambros Tapinos who blasted it as a waste of money.

The City of Moreland currently has three full synthetic sporting grounds, with two of them – Clifton Park and the hockey field at Brunswick Secondary College – within Brunswick. But the council also has a policy of supporting artificial surfaces to replace grass on bowling greens and tennis courts. Primary schools in Brunswick also often have synthetic turf on their playing grounds.

Cr Riley has requested what he called a triple bottom line assessment of all types of sports surfaces, including new and emerging natural turf and soil management techniques and alternatives to artificial grass.

The review will not be confined to council owned properties, but will also look at “the impact of synthetic surfaces being used by other land users within the municipality (e.g., schools) on community wellbeing”.

Cr Riley said it was timely to look into sports playing surfaces ahead of a major review of the council’s open space strategy.

“There’s been a lot of learning about the nature of plastic or synthetic surfaces and some of the downsides of that and it’s been quite a heated debate,” he said, referring to Hosken Reserve.

“I just want us to be able to reconsider that and look in the cool light of day at some of the pros and cons of that and the way that we can actually find to recycle these products if we are going to use them or what the alternatives are.

“And there are possibly alternatives where we improve the soil and management of our grounds, so that the types of turf and grasses that we’re using can be played on and used for longer periods.”

Cr James Conlan said a common argument that synthetic turf was more durable on heavily used sports grounds did not stack up, and avoiding artificial surfaces could save the council money.

“There are definitely examples out there … where those sporting facilities are able to accommodate 40 to 60 hours of organised sport per week on natural turf, not synthetic and it’s actually a massive cost saver to council,” he said.

“We don’t have to invest in the gigantic capital works infrastructure that is required and associated with synthetic turf. There’s plenty of examples, evidence out there to demonstrate we can do this very differently if we start to think differently about how we manage our natural turf and soils.”

But the review was vehemently opposed by Deputy Mayor Lambros Tapinos, who described it as “superfluous and un-needed and a bit of a waste of money … that’s probably going to tell us something we already know”.

He said in a climate as wet as Melbourne’s in winter, some sports grounds with natural grass became mudbaths and were unusable, while synthetic surfaces allowed them to be used all year round.

“I think that would be $30,000 of consultancy fees that is not the best use of council money,” he said.

“I understand the council objective here is to move away from synthetics but I just really don’t understand that if you actually do a triple bottom line analysis which includes the social element of what sport brings to the city as far as social cohesion, active participation and the economics of it you would find that the current model of doing synthetics is by far and away the most effective thing that we need to have in our policy because we need those options.”

John Englart, convenor of Climate Action Moreland and a long-time campaigner against plastic-based artificial grass, welcomed the move by the council to review its synthetic surfaces and felt vindicated after the council rejected his request for a similar review last year.

“Synthetic turf is part of the petrochemical and plastics industry and it’s seen as a growth area for the fossil fuel companies,” he said.

He said artificial grass had a range of detrimental impacts including the urban heat island effect, a loss of biodiversity and birdlife, plastic microfibres that break off and end up flowing from stormwater into bays and oceans, and the carbon footprint from the manufacture of plastic-based turf. He said there was also no recycling facility for artificial turf in Australia so it ended up in landfill.

“I think they [the council] have realised that synthetic turf is highly problematic,” Mr Englart said

“I’ve always approached it that you need to do a full bottom line assessment and there may be some uses where there’s no alternative other than synthetic turf, but you need to do a weighing of them and work out the benefits and impacts and make an informed decision from that.”

But the president of the Brunswick Zebras Football Club, Carlo Carli, said that without the synthetic surface at Clifton Park, this winter’s season would have been a disaster for players, especially juniors.

“We had our holiday program cancelled because the council declared all turf grounds closed,” he said. “That cost us a lot in revenue and goodwill.

“This season has been so bad that even the high end grounds have been affected … We have lost training days and have had to move games. One of the grounds we play on has been closed because it is too dangerous; two others are mud heaps.

“Clifton saves our club.”