Artificial grass poses a threat to the marine plastic pollution crisis, warns study

A new study found a substantial percentage of artificial grass plastic waste in seawater near Barcelona in Spain. 
Mrigakshi Dixit
Representational image of artificial grass.
Representational image of artificial grass.


A recent study has revealed the negative side of "artificial greening" on the environment. 

Researchers from the University of Barcelona discovered that tiny plastic fibers used to produce artificial grass often wind up in water bodies, posing a substantial hazard to marine ecology. 

The team found a substantial percentage of artificial grass plastic in seawater near Barcelona in Spain. 

Evaluation of tiny plastics in the waters of Spain 

Artificial grass, also known as turf, comprises synthetic fibers designed to resemble natural grass. It is mainly composed of two kinds of plastic: polyethylene and polypropylene. 

Polyethylene's disastrous impact on many terrestrial and marine ecosystems has been well established. Every year, millions of tons of polyethylene pollutants end up in the environment due to less recycling effectiveness. 

For this study, the team of researchers led by Liam de Haan studied 217 water samples obtained off the coast of Barcelona. The study also looked at 200 samples collected from Spain's second-longest river, the Guadalquivir, between 2014 and 2021.

The scientists concentrated on plastic fragments over five millimeters while ignoring any minuscule particles (microplastics) less than this size. 

The authors emphasize that determining the origin of microplastics is more complicated. On the other hand, turf plastic fibers are simpler to identify since they are thin, long and slightly curled, and green in color.

The issue could be global  

The findings revealed that plastic grass fibers accounted for 15 percent of fragments bigger than 5 millimeters in samples collected within a kilometer of the shore in Barcelona. 

In certain areas, the number of artificial grass pieces floating in the water reached 213,200 fibers per square kilometer.

“We were really surprised that nobody had reported this before,” de Haan told New Scientist.

Meanwhile, the average deposition of plastic pollution from artificial grass in the Guadalquivir River was found to be 50 times lower than in the seawater off Barcelona.

As the usage of artificial grass continues to grow, the authors believe that this issue may also be unfolding in water bodies worldwide. In reality, plastic contamination from artificial grass may be far higher than thought. This is because plastic fragments tend to break down further into microplastics and nanoplastics.

“I think it’s pretty implausible that this is only happening in Spain,” he concluded.  

The findings have been reported in the journal Environmental Pollution.

Study abstract:

Artificial turf (AT) is a surfacing material that simulates natural grass by using synthetic, mainly plastic, fibers in different shapes, sizes and properties. AT has spread beyond sports facilities and today shapes many urban landscapes, from private lawns to rooftops and public venues. Despite concerns regarding the impacts of AT, little is known about the release of AT fibers into natural environment. Here, for the first time, we specifically investigate the presence of AT fibers in river and ocean waters as major conduits and final destination of plastic debris transported by water runoff. Our sampling survey showed that, AT fibers – composed mainly of polyethylene and polypropylene – can constitute over 15% of the mesoplastics and macroplastics content, suggesting that AT fibers may contribute significantly to plastic pollution. Up to 20,000 fibers a day flowed down through the river, and up to 213,200 fibers per km2 were found floating on the sea surface of nearshore areas. AT, apart from impacting on urban biodiversity, urban runoff, heat island formation, and hazardous chemical leaching, is a major source of plastic pollution to natural aquatic environments.

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