Letter From Vineyard Conservation Society

November 15, 2018

Dear committee members:

The Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) is a non-profit land conservation and environmental advocacy organization that has been working for the last five decades to protect the land, water, and unique character of Martha’s Vineyard.

Concerning the present discussion of proposed improvements to school athletic facilities, we wish to reiterate and further explain our opposition to the installation of artificial turf on new or existing playing fields. We appreciate and share the desire on the part of school staff, parents, and the community at large to provide the best for our students, including our student athletes. However, we believe that this can be accomplished without the need for artificial turf, especially in light of the recently demonstrated success, with improved management and resources, of natural grass fields.

In response to a growing public awareness of the harms associated with plastic pollution, in particular impacts on wildlife and our marine environment, VCS has recently made a priority of plastic waste reduction initiatives. The growing conviction among the public was demonstrated most clearly at the 2016 and 2017 Annual Town Meetings, when a proposed ban on plastic shopping bags passed unanimously, or very nearly so, in all six Island towns. Since that time, further plastic waste reduction initiatives by VCS and others are successfully moving forward: new educational programs like the schools’ “Zero Waste Week”; the installation of water bottle refill stations in schools and other public places; and student-led advocacy efforts, including outreach to local businesses to discourage excessive use of disposable drinking straws, and a bylaw, created by West Tisbury School students and passed at their Town Meeting, which prohibits the intentional release of balloons.

Against this backdrop of growing enthusiasm for measures to reduce plastic waste, and the progress already achieved by our Island community, the possibility of replacing natural grass with one or more massive plastic carpets is particularly dissonant, and disappointing. Artificial turf, while not disposable in quite the same sense as a plastic drinking straw, is indeed a plastic waste issue. Periodically (typically every 8 to 12 years), the entire carpet will need to be shipped off-Island, disposed of, and replaced. While the energy and materials consumed due to disposal and replacement are principally global issues (for example, those associated with climate change, which we obviously should not ignore), we should also consider the local impacts that occur in between replacement intervals. Under normal usage, over the course of those years the plastic “grass” fibers gradually break down, shedding microplastics as they do. These tiny particles then enter our groundwater, either directly when it rains, or indirectly by sticking to athletes' skin and clothes, to be washed away later. From there, they will flow to the ocean, causing the very same problems as plastic bags, straws, and water bottles.

This contradiction with the Vineyard's expressed preference for reducing plastic pollution is the most clear and simple objection to artificial turf on our Island; however, there are various other issues related to environmental toxicity and potential health impacts. Negative health effects break down into two categories: acute (such as increased risk of heat stroke and ankle injury) and long-term toxicity. Concerns about environmental toxicity largely derive from the unknown levels of lead, phthalates, and other toxins present, coupled with the intense level of exposure – children playing on artificial turf do routinely ingest and/or inhale small pieces of the plastic grass and infill material (the small pellets that provide cushioning). In addition, artificial turf requires routine cleaning to remove bodily fluids and animal waste, and treatment with disinfectants and other chemicals to prevent fungal and bacterial growth.

Our view is that toxicity concerns, while difficult to weigh at present due to lack of scientific consensus, are greatly magnified by the long-term commitment required by artificial turf. A return to natural grass is likely unfeasible, so for planning purposes one should assume that an artificial field is essentially a permanent structure for which the environmental impact depends greatly on future maintenance decisions. Consider two examples. First, grass carpets marketed as lead-free (and Made-in-the-USA) exist, but they are more expensive than imported carpets containing lead. Second, the most cost-effective infill material is crumb rubber (shredded used car tires), a probable carcinogen. This material was in the initial proposal for artificial turf at MVRHS, before the proponents of the project yielded to public pressure and substituted a less toxic (and more expensive) material. Given that one of the leading arguments for the necessity of artificial turf is a historical lack of funding for adequate grass field maintenance, it is reasonable to fear that future budgetary constraints may require the use of more toxic, less environmentally-friendly materials – especially if the periodic renovations to the turf happen to coincide with a time of budgetary tightening across the school system. Careful consideration of these financial implications is in order before committing to a course of action that will lead to difficult decisions regarding student health and environmental toxicity for decades to come.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this important issue, and for all you do for the education and well-being of our Island’s children.

Jeremy Houser
Communications & Ecologist

Brendan O’Neill
Executive Director