March 24, 2021

Say No to Artificial Turf; Keep Public Recreation Fields Green

To the Editor:

Our parks are wonderful areas used by the entire community. Fields where youth play soccer, lacrosse, baseball, softball, and other sports are multi-use. Synthetic polymer or “plastic” fields lined and designed for a particular sport are less suited to casual recreation. They are a poor setting for a picnic. More and more studies suggest that any kind of exposure to nature has benefits. And while manicured playing fields are no wooded trail, they are still more natural, especially to local wildlife, passing birds, and any creature that lives in soil. They “breathe.” 

Artificial fields do not sequester CO2 and emit oxygen, rather they can off-gas potentially dangerous chemicals. This depends on construction and constituent materials, which are improving. Anything in environmental toxicology is hard to prove — depending on factors like temperature, exposure duration, lifestyle, etc. The science is still evolving and long-term studies are challenging, as each new generation of artificial turf technology is ripped-up and replaced well before its promised lifespan.

The new candidate for artificial turf is “Gen 4.” Prior generations were retired due to performance, injuries, chemical leachates, and off-gassing from the crumb-rubber infill and synthetic grasses. They are now presumably in a landfill, at times leaving an expensive remediation behind. Artificial fields also absorb much more heat in the summer, sometimes double, raising the risks of injury and the weathering that volatilizes and mobilizes chemical constituents.

I am not a chemist, but feel strongly that a community investing together in shared open space should know the risks and on whom they are imposed. Princeton has been taking great steps to become more sustainable, more equitable, and address climate change, among other laudable goals. We are a greener town.

The Princeton Recreation Department does a great job serving our community and maintaining open space. Princeton has a strong tradition of sports opportunities of many kinds that hopefully only get better. This should include improving fields, making them playable for more of the year. However, there are important tradeoffs and fields in public parks must meet a higher bar. That we may soon have a fleet of low-emission electric lawn machines is a step in the right direction. Replacing those lawns with artificial turf is taking a step backwards.

As an aside, I am a youth sports supporter grateful to have coached baseball for many wonderful kids in town. Princeton Little League is one of the many successful sports organizations in Princeton. It’s a story of partnership and volunteers, for years marshaled by Jon Durbin — a community leader who has indefatigably worked to improve youth sports, and for whom we should someday consider naming a real grass baseball field.

Will Price
Birch Avenue