Synthetic fields exploding in popularity for lower levels in Sydney, Australia

At the end of every football season, Pennant Hills Park looked more like a sandpit than a soccer pitch. A few tufts of grass behind the goal were the only greenery left on a pitch devastated by a full season of use.

“We would start playing on it in March and by mid-April it would be dirt,” Pennant Hills Football Club vice president Grahame Bateman said. “We would be scratching a line in the dirt with sticks. It was quite diabolical really. We used to refer to the ground as the Pennant Hills mudflats.”

Thanks to Hornsby Council and the football club, the park now stays green all year after they replaced the grass field with a synthetic one.

Almost every council in Sydney now boasts a synthetic playing field, with the few that don’t planning on building one soon.

While most grass pitches begin to deteriorate if used for more than 20 hours a week, a synthetic field copes with more than 60 hours. They offer a consistent playing surface, require less maintenance and over their lifetime, can be more environmentally friendly than grass.

Mr. Bateman said the difference it has made to the club and the community was overwhelming.

“There is someone down there seven days a week. Rain, hail or shine, there will be someone using the field. It is servicing thousands of people.”

The club now runs a summer football competition, more than doubling its membership.

“We’ve gone in the space of three years from a club of 500 members to a club of nearly 1100 members,” he said. “That demand has been there and all that we’ve done is opened up the ability to meet that demand. And there’s an even bigger demand because we’ve had to knock teams back.

“I think that any council that doesn’t look at doing this is crazy. They are absolutely crazy and they are letting the community down.”

Hornsby mayor Philip Ruddock lives near the field and walks past it every morning.

“The condition of the field towards the end of the season it was impossible, it was a mud heap,” he said. “This has changed it so it’s constantly able to be used and can be used by larger number of people. People are very, very concerned to get good use from the facilities that we have and this facilitates it.”

Hornsby Council is set to announce plans to build two synthetic sports fields in the new year.

Before 2014, there were six synthetic sports fields in Sydney. By the end of 2018, there will be close to 30.

Councils such as Northern Beaches, Willoughby, Sutherland and Inner West have built multiple synthetic fields, with Ryde planning one also.

Woollahra is in the final stages of constructing a synthetic playing surface at Woollahra Oval for Shute Shield side Eastern Suburbs RUFC, the first side in the league to have a synthetic pitch.

Club president John Murray said the club was initially hesitant but is now excited by the benefits the field could have for the wider community.

“It’s fair to say when the council first suggested it, we were concerned about it but now we’ve come around completely and we’re right behind it.”

Synthetic sports field manufacturer Polytan said it has seen a big increase in the popularity of the fields.

It also said there was growing interest from professional teams and leagues to use synthetic fields for training.

Despite their increasing popularity, there are still a few councils yet to have a synthetic field, such as Mosman in Sydney’s north. Opposition by environmental groups to plans for a synthetic field at Georges Heights and Middle Head has meant sports teams are left with deteriorating and overused fields.

Mosman Football Club president Louise Walker said the club had looked at fields in similar areas and believed a balance between the sporting and environmental needs of the community could be found.

“Blackman Park is a fabulous example of where they’ve taken a grass area and turned it into a large synthetic. That’s an area that’s surrounded by bush and yet, it works well, aesthetically as well as practically.”

President of the Headland Preservation Group Tim James said the group held concerns about the environmental and health impacts of a synthetic sports field in Mosman.

“The oval within iconic Middle Head on Sydney Harbour is sensitive national parkland which was set aside for future generations of Australians. It is designated to become part of the Sydney Harbour National Park. It is a unique location that is protected by special laws. We have many concerns about health and environmental impacts, including plastic runoff into the harbor. For all these reasons, we believe that a natural grass solution is required.”

While criticism in Australia is rare, the US is having major conversations about the health impacts of synthetic sports fields.

The National Centre for Health Research, based in Washington DC, has raised concerns over some of the materials used. Silica sand is used as an infill and can be dangerous when it is in dust form. Centre president Diana Zuckerman said there needed to be more information for parents about potential dangers.

“As a scientist who has worked on health policy issues for 30 years, I don’t shock easily. However, the fact that school athletic fields and playgrounds are exposing DC children on a daily basis to chemicals and materials that are known to increase obesity, cause early puberty, cause ADD and other attention problems, harbor deadly bacteria and exacerbate asthma is very disturbing,” she said.

In an article published this year by Georgia State University Professor of Environmental Health, Stuart Shala said there were many health risks associated with synthetic fields.

His article highlighted the danger in recycled tires, with some carcinogenic chemicals in the rubber.  He also said that surface heat of up to 90 degrees could burn the feet of players and the hardness of some pitches was well above the average for grass.

Dr Shala said it was hard to find a clear answer if artificial turf increased the risk of injury or illness.

Polytan said its fields have not been found to be harmful on environmental or health grounds and there was no conclusive evidence to prove otherwise. – by William McInnes