Fears UOW's synthetic football pitch will be 'an environmental disaster'

'Disaster': Plastic Free Wollongong's Andy Gray, Surfrider Foundation's Susie Crick and Fair Food Forager's Paul Hellier object to the idea of a synthetic pitch due to concerns over micro plastics entering waterways. Picture: Sylvia Liber.
'Disaster': Plastic Free Wollongong's Andy Gray, Surfrider Foundation's Susie Crick and Fair Food Forager's Paul Hellier object to the idea of a synthetic pitch due to concerns over micro plastics entering waterways. Picture: Sylvia Liber.

The University of Wollongong and Wollongong council have signalled plans to push ahead with a major upgrade of Kooloobong Ovals, despite protests from dozens of residents and community groups. 

There were 55 submissions lodged about the UOW proposal, which would exempt it from paying development taxes to the council for the next 10 years in return for carrying out $7 million in public works.

The largest proposed project is a $3.2 million upgrade of the football ovals, which would be redeveloped for “high intensity usage” and include a synthetic surface, 

Included in the dozens of objections made to the council, a number of environmental campaigners raised concerns about the plan to install synthetic grass.

Susie Crick, of the South Coast Surfrider Foundation said installing turf made of plastic would be “an environmental disaster”.

“There have been many concerns raised that synthetic fields cause increased injuries, urban heat and the landfill and will impact drainage in to the Wollongong Botanic Gardens,” she wrote.

“However my main concern is that all plastics do break up and the micro plastics will end up draining into our waterways, harbour and our beaches.”

Likewise, Andy Gray from Plastic Free Wollongong said installing the synthetic grass would “be an extreme disservice to the City of Wollongong which prides itself on innovation”, as it “has the potential to contribute millions of pieces of microplastic pollution into the local environment and put the health of sporting individuals at risk”. 

In his submission, Mr Gray said it was “estimated that the amount of microplastics entering the sea and waterways is 70 kg (or 293 million particles) per year for each artificial playing field”.

The largest project proposed by the university is a $3.2 million upgrade of the football ovals, which would be redeveloped for “high intensity usage” and include a synthetic surface.

The largest project proposed by the university is a $3.2 million upgrade of the football ovals, which would be redeveloped for “high intensity usage” and include a synthetic surface.

Most other submissions also opposed the university’s proposal for Kooloobong Ovals, with many residents concerned about parking issues if the use of the fields was intensified, as well as the effects of extra noise and excess lighting on neighbouring homes.

The Friends of the Botanic Gardens group said an upgrade would have detrimental effects on the soil under the synthetic turf and the neighbouring section of rainforest in the garden.

However, Destination Wollongong and Football South Coast expressed their support, highlighting the tourism benefits of attracting outside teams to the region and the flexibility of synthetic pitches in all weather.

With so much debate, the council said its staff and university representatives had now “proposed that the draft Planning Agreement be amended” and re-exhibited.

"The exhibition will include information responding to the issues listed above and other issues raised in the submissions to enable further consideration of the detailed submissions received in the first round of exhibition,” the council report says.

The “amended plans” include much the same projects as listed before, with the redirection of $100,000 in funding towards the Botanic Garden master plan and $500,000 for footpath projects in Keiraville.

Respnding to some of the concerns raised, a University of Wollongong spokesman said synthetic surfaces would “provide better and more durable playing surfaces”.

“As well as improving safety and the playing experience for participants, synthetic playing surfaces also provide higher utilisation than conventional playing fields, particularly after periods of wet weather,” he said.

“The university is committed to best practice design and management for this facility, which will include capture and re-use of water used for maintenance.”

He also said the university had noted concerns raised about lighting by some residents, the potential for lighting overspill to be considered in the design of the lighting upgrade.

“UOW has also taken into consideration concerns raised about increased traffic and parking demand around Kooloobong Ovals and will be encouraging the use of nearby on campus car parking during evening and weekend sporting activities when there is plenty of parking capacity available on campus,” he said.

“The amended VPA will deliver excellent outcomes for nearby residents and the wider community with refreshed and upgraded sporting fields to support the local growth in soccer participation, accelerated investment in footpaths in the surrounding suburbs and a safer, more attractive streetscape thanks to the undergrounding of power lines along the tree-lined Northfields Avenue.”