Albion Athletics in the Field of Sustainability

The author, Alma sophomore Bonnie Lord, lets rubber pellets from the synthetic turf of the Sprankle-Sprandel Football Stadium fall from her hand. According to the GBA, synthetic turf requires less maintenance than a natural grass field, but the pellets can pollute the outside environment if they migrate (Photo illustration by Bonnie Lord).

Athletics – like any other industry that generates waste and uses land – impacts the environment. 

In a 2022 study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, researchers measured the carbon footprint of individual pieces of equipment, sporting events and maintenance of facilities across several sports. According to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, the study’s findings of the carbon footprint of one U.S. Division I team football season is comparable to burning more than 42 million pounds of coal. 

Albion College sports roughly 24 teams within its athletics department, across various facilities.

According to Director of Grounds John Hibbs, the Grounds department oversees all outdoor sports facilities at the college. 

For synthetic turf fields like the lacrosse/soccer and the football fields, Hibbs said maintaining them includes redistributing rubber granules, picking up debris and re-fastening loose turf with epoxy. 

“That’s one of the benefits of those, is there’s not a lot of maintenance that goes into it,” Hibbs said.

However, according to the Green Building Alliance (GBA), turf can come with several environmental risks. These include microplastic pollution via the migration of rubber pellets, the loss of plant matter which contributes to the urban heat effect, the loss of potential carbon capture by a natural field and the waste generated from replacing the field – usually committed to landfills. 

“(Turf fields) generally last anywhere from eight to 12 years, around 10 years is generally the average lifespan of a synthetic turf field,” Hibbs said. 

Hibbs added that the reason turf needs to be replaced over time has to do with safety as well as aesthetics. If the rubber pellets become too compacted, for instance, the field can be unsafe to use. He said replacement is also necessary if the turf is too labor-intensive to repair, falling apart or if the colors are fading.

“It’s mainly a visual thing, but you kinda know when it’s time,” Hibbs said. “When you get to this level in your athletic career, these fields need to be maintained very highly.”

Though artificial turf does come with some environmental risks, minimal maintenance has its benefits. According to U.S. Turf San Diego, artificial turf can reduce the need for water, air-polluting equipment and chemical products like herbicides. 

In addition, natural grass fields also have maintenence related environmental impacts. 

For the natural grass fields, Hibbs said they are mowed regularly, “sometimes multiple times a week,” especially during the playing season. This level of maintenance, Hibbs said, upholds quality and safety standards expected of a professional field.

To irrigate the fields, Hibbs said water is pumped from the Kalamazoo River. In an email sent on April 2, Hibbs added that while the system can draw more water, Grounds does not use more than 1.5 million gallons per season, the baseline which would require reporting exact amounts per month to the state. 

“They are fertilized, we do weed control, so we basically do everything that is required to make it as pristine as possible,” Hibbs said.

When fertilizers are spread on fields, nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus can run off with rain into larger bodies of water. This nutrient overload can trigger overgrowth of algae, deplete ecosystems of oxygen and ultimately create dead zones.

The EPA defines nutrient pollution as “one of the most widespread and challenging environmental problems faced by our nation.”

Hibbs said Grounds is “cognizant” of these risks.

“We are very careful not to over-irrigate, we are very careful to use our fertilizers at the lowest recommended rates,” Hibbs said. “We do the absolute minimum to provide the best quality product.”

In terms of what could be improved on by those attending games, Hibbs said less littering during sporting events would be appreciated. 

“That’s something we spend quite a lot of time after an event, doing the clean-up, and I know what the reality is,” Hibbs said.

Another aspect of sustainability is managing team equipment waste. Interim Athletic Director and Associate Athletic Director Eric Scott said the department looks for ways to offset the waste generated by teams.

“Do we have waste? Of course we do, I’d say it’s impossible to exist in this world and not have it,” Scott said. “But, I do believe we’re cognizant of anything we can do.”

Scott added that there is an effort across the department to donate, gift or otherwise “find a space for our old equipment to go somewhere else instead of just dumping it in the dumpster.”

For example, Scott said old uniforms are often framed and given as senior gifts rather than thrown away when they are replaced.

Though teams can find avenues to reduce the impact of equipment turnover, Scott added that there are no effective alternatives with transportation. To get 20-40 people to a game in another school, Scott said the only real option is charter buses.

“There are no electric vehicles for us to not do that,” Scott said. “I have to believe at some point, probably in your lifetime, not mine, we’ll have some sort of electric charter option.”

At Albion College, Scott said “a more clear plan on what we’re doing sustainability wise” would better inform the community, campus and the athletics department on what steps to take.

“We may be doing things, but I don’t think the campus community knows what we’re doing,” Scott said. “That would help us, as a campus, to look at where we could improve to help that initiative”

According to Scott, the athletic department is “taskmasters, if you just tell us what to do, we’ll do it.” 

Personally, Scott said he considers sustainability in several aspects of life, noting the threat of population growth, the importance of supporting local, sustainably sourced goods and holding industries accountable for their impacts. 

“There are a lot of things that factor into what humans call sustainability. Do humans need to be better? Yes. Do companies need to be better at how they produce and spend? Yes,” Scott said. “It’s everybody doing their part.”

About Bonnie Lord 40 Articles
Bonnie Lord is a sophomore from Alma, Michigan and is an environmental science major at Albion College. She investigates questions of infrastructure, water quality and the changing relationship the community of Albion navigates with the environment. She enjoys bird watching, reading, and dismantling the patriarchy. Contact Bonnie via email at BFL10@albion.edu

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