Synthetic turf fields ‘lack standards’, but no moratorium as chief scientist recommends more research

Report from ABC Radio | 20th June 2023

The New South Wales chief scientist has stopped short of recommending a moratorium on a common type of synthetic turf, despite finding little is known about its composition and environmental impact.

Key points:

  • There are more than 180 synthetic turf sports fields in NSW, a sharp increase from 24 in 2014 and 30 in 2018
  • Community groups have protested about the loss of green space and concerns about microplastics and heat
  • In his report, the chief scientist recommended NSW adopt an “accelerated learn and adapt approach”
  • There has been a six-fold increase in artificial turf replacing suburban grass sports fields in the past five years as sports clubs have embraced it as a reliable alternative.

But community groups have protested about the loss of green space and raised concerns about microplastics and heat, prompting the previous Coalition state government to ask the state’s chief scientist, Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, to investigate.

His final report, quietly released earlier this month, found there were 181 synthetic turf sports fields in NSW, a sharp increase from 24 in 2014 and 30 in 2018.

Professor Durrant-Whyte has identified significant “knowledge gaps”, particularly when it comes to exactly what goes into commonly used rubber infill.

“There is insufficient information and a lack of standards about the materials and chemical composition of synthetic turf,” the review concluded.

The chief scientist acknowledged increased heat effects were a concern and raised doubts about the turf’s performance claims in Australia’s climate.

“It is not clear whether expectations about the longevity and carrying capacity of synthetic fields can be met under Australian climatic conditions, potentially influencing decisions about installation and cost-benefit considerations,” the report states.

The report also noted that improvements in natural turf management meant grass fields may allow for increased performance to meet demand.

Rather than follow overseas bans, the chief scientist recommended NSW instead adopt an “accelerated learn and adapt approach”.

With more artificial fields proposed across NSW, including a $10 million redevelopment of Tamplin Field in Hobartville in Sydney’s north-west and Westleigh Park near Hornsby, community groups had hoped he would recommend stronger action.

Hornsby Council plans to turn this area of Westleigh Park into three sports fields; two grass and one synthetic turf. (Supplied: Save Westleigh Park)

Convenor of Save Westleigh Park, Jan Primrose, said the recommended approach “risks leaving a legacy of environmental and health issues across Sydney’s open spaces”.

“The idea of using new fields as a testbed will simply exacerbate future problems by increasing the number of fields exponentially,” Ms Primrose said.

“Surely we’ve learnt the lessons that the legacy of PFAS contamination has left us with — a precautionary approach should prevail.”

Synthetic fields commonly have long blades supported by infill made from recycled tyres, called crumb rubber.

The European Union has banned this type of rubber infill due to concerns about microplastics ending up in waterways, giving the industry eight years to switch to alternatives such as cork and wood products.

Grant Humphreys, a director of Sports and Play Industry Association, said the chief scientist’s decision not to go down that path was a relief for the industry.

Mr Humphreys, who is a FIFA qualified sports field tester, said the EU ban would have flow on effects here anyway.

“We don’t actually manufacture any crumb rubber in Australia, it gets all imported, so we will have that issue with supplying it. We’ve gone to more of the cork, organic infills.”

Some councils are using a combination of synthetic turf and grass in public parks, but there is little data on how common it is. (

He called on the government to make standards, such as installing filters in drains, mandatory to prevent microplastics flowing into waterways.

He said the new fields had proved a “win win” for councils and sports clubs by allowing more teams to play and train, relieving pressure on grass fields.

The proliferation of synthetic turf highlights an underlying problem, according to associate professor in urban management and planning at Western Sydney university Dr Sebastian Pfautsh.

“It really goes back to urban planning principles — where we densify or expand our cities but we’re not at the same time providing the necessary green space for recreation and recreational activities for these growing populations,” he said.

“That leads to the problem that the existing sports fields or other facilities are being loved to death.”

Dr Pfautsch called for a halt on new synthetic turf fields being installed until further research is conducted.

He is particularly concerned about the increased heat generated by artificial turf after measuring temperatures of more than 80 degrees Celsius at surface level.

He pointed to the unsuitability of plans to install synthetic turf at Tamplin Field in Hobartville.

“It’s particularly detrimental to put a field like that into a space that’s naturally really hot,” Dr Pfautsch said.

“I can just foresee that during warmer days, and then the hot summers that you get out west, those facilities can’t be used.”

The state government has until September to respond to the report.