Mountains of plastic from failed synthetic playing fields aren't being recycled.
EARLY IN AUGUST Early in August the Greater Victoria School District replaced the prematurely failed artificial turf playing field at Oak Bay High. Initially it’s hard to understand why synthetic fields are required, especially when you consider the surface is composed of 12.7 tonnes of petroleum-based turf carpet with 40 tonnes of tiny thermoplastic elastomer pellets spread on top.
Can 52 tonnes of plastic possibly be better than a real grass field?
Upon closer examination it becomes apparent these fake fields are actually essential to the all-weather, all-season needs of burgeoning local sports programs. In addition to use by school students, Bays United Football Club has 1,600 enthusiastic local participants age five to sixty who use this particular field for over 2,000 hours each year. Natural fields simply could not withstand this intensity of use.
If one is prepared to accept that premise, there is an additional factor that is truly unacceptable. These fields have short lifespans and must be replaced every 8 to 10 years.
In addition to the Oak Bay High field, the City of Victoria is replacing the worn-out synthetic field at Topaz Park next year. These two local fields will be added to 750 other end-of-life fields that are replaced each year in North America. This represents a mountain of carpet. There is no recycling facility on this continent.
The scrapped, prematurely-failed playing field carpet at Oak Bay High. (Photo by Angus Matthews)
This is where the “don’t ask, don’t tell” part comes in. The School District and the City have either not asked or won’t tell where and how the carpet is actually being recycled. (The pellets can be reused.) The manufacturer that replaced the failed Oak Bay High field on warranty reports that they transfer the turf to a Vancouver company who ships it to Asia for recycling. The recycling company apparently provides a certificate that seems to satisfy the School District. But there is no real information about a location, process, or facility where the recycling takes place. No address, no photos, no proud evidence of having done the environmentally responsible thing. It’s not even clear what country the facility may be located in. They have variously stated China, the Philippines or Malaysia. How can our school board and city council condone shipping discarded plastic turf thousands of kilometres across the Pacific to become an unknown burden in a developing country?
Europe also has a huge problem managing synthetic turf. Zembla TV, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism program, exposed the synthetic turf industry’s dirty big secret. In a 2018 documentary, their team followed truckloads of synthetic turf to giant, unregulated, turf mountain stockpiles instead of the promised recycling facilities. There is only one known recycling facility for synthetic turf and its located in Denmark, not across the Pacific.
The Synthetic Turf Council is the industry advocacy and standards organization. In their 2015 report entitled “Removal, Recovery, Reuse and Recycling of Synthetic Turf,” it states, “In fact, when compared to the $30-60,000 cost of landfilling an 80,000 square foot sports field, it is unlikely that the cost of transporting the synthetic turf and/or infill farther than 200 miles will be considered feasible. Therefore, it will be important to investigate all of the reuse, recycling, and power generation options in the region.”
The CRD’s Hartland landfill may be the only responsible disposal site in this particular case. For the future there is another option. Before buying another plastic field, tell—don’t ask—the synthetic turf industry to resolve their disgraceful lapse in environmental responsibility.
Angus Matthews is a retired college administrator who discovered plastics from the Oak Bay High field in nearby Bowker Creek in October 2019.