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Plastic Pitches

 

Artificial sports pitches have been around since the 1970s and give communities and clubs the chance to play sports whatever the weather. From a health and environmental perspective, we would always encourage communities to think carefully before choosing artificial turf over natural, taking into account biodiversity and well-being benefits of real grass.

We can also see the practical reasons for artificial turf, though, especially for playing sports. They have become very popular because they can be used much more regularly than natural grass pitches, and they don’t need as much water, pesticide or fertiliser as grass.

Whatever your own opinion on plastic sports fields, it’s clear that they’re here to stay. The number of full-size pitches in Europe has grown threefold between 2006-2012, and the number is likely to continue to grow until at least 2020 [1]. 

But did you know that artificial pitches can also release microplastic to the environment? And what happens to the old pitch when it needs to be replaced?

Microplastic from artificial pitches

 

What is rubber crumb?

Many artificial sports pitches use third generation (3G) technology, which means fine granules, usually made of rubber, are added as a performance infill to make a more comfortable playing surface. This is especially important for contact sports like football and rugby as it reduces injury.

The most common performance infill is made of rubber from old vehicle tyres, although other materials are also sometimes used, such as other types of plastic or organic material like cork.

These loose granules sit in between the strands of grass on the top of the carpet. If you’ve ever played on a field like this you’ll probably have noticed the little granules in your shoes, or in your kit once you’ve taken it home. Not only do they end up in your bags and sports clothing, they can also escape from the edges of the pitch, down drains, into local water sources and surrounding soils.  

How much is lost?

For an average sized pitch, rubber granules need to be topped up around 1 to 5 tonnes each year, which is around 1-4% of the total rubber crumb on the pitch. It is difficult to know exactly how much of this ‘lost granule’ ends up in ecosystems.

Across Europe, one study estimated that around 10% ends up down drains (~900-8000 tonnes of granule), while almost half is estimated to end up in nearby soil/grass (8000-32500 tonnes per year) [2]. Field studies in the Netherlands found up to 70kg per year entering nearby water courses from a single pitch [3].  

Does rubber crumb leach other harmful substances?

The most common type of performance infill is styrene-butadiene rubber, which is usually made from ground up old car and lorry tyres. The rubber, and other types of plastic performance infill, can contain small quantities of potentially harmful chemicals and heavy metals.

These chemical can leach out over time, and will continue to escape from granules sitting in the environment for some time. Studies show that zinc, in particular, might be leaching out from fields in quantities that could harm the environment [4].  

Disposal of Artificial Pitches

 

Artificial pitches should be replaced every 8 to 10 years, to ensure a safe and good quality playing surface. Because the different layers of a pitch are made of different types of plastic, rubber, and other materials, it’s very difficult to recycle and many pitches end up in landfill.  

 New advances in technology are making it easier to recycle pitches. New technology can lift out, shred and sort pitches, letting 99% material be reused or recycled [5] . We want to make sure all pitches are installed with a clear end of life plan in place.

What is Fidra doing?

 

At Fidra, we want to ensure both new and existing pitches are being designed, maintained and used without having a big impact on the environment. This means making sure that plastic stays on the pitch and making sure the whole pitch can be sensibly reused or recycled at the end of the pitch’s life.

We are working with the organisation KIMO international to collate a set of best practice guidelines to minimise rubber granule loss from pitches. As part of this we’ll be speaking to industry experts and communities that have already trialed best practice.

We want to promote best practice across Scotland, the UK, and internationally using standards, certifications, procurement protocol and through engagement with local and national government.

Together with KIMO International, we have created the Pitch In community toolkit to spread the word about microplastics from pitches and what users, and community groups, can do to make their own pitches ‘greener’.

We want to encourage research and innovation to focus on the environment as well as pitch quality – can we design entirely “zero microplastic” pitches in the future?

Take Action

Do you own or take care of a pitch?

Download our practical guidelines to reduce microplastic loss from pitches, and make your own Microplastics Action Plan

Do you play on a Pitch?

Check out our Pitch In community toolkit, to find out how you can get involved in #TeamPitch-In to tackle microplastic from your local pitch

Do you use a pitch in your local area and want to get involved with your own community?

 Are you a pitch owner wanting to find out what to do to improve the environmental impact of your pitch?

 Do you have comments or suggestions, or want to find out more?

 Get in touch by e-mailing info@fidra.org.uk

References:

1. Eunomia Research & Consulting (2018) Investigating options for reducing releases in the aquatic environment emitted by (but not intentionally added in) products. Report for DG Environment of the European Commission 

[2] ibid

[3] . Weijer, A., J. Knol, and U. Hofstra, 2017, Verspreiding van infill en indicatieve massabalans. Rapport i.o.v. BSCN i.s.m. gemeenten Rotterdam, Utrecht, Amsterdam en Den Haag, I. SWECO,  48 pages.

[4] Cheng, H., Hu, Y., & Reinhard, M. (2014). Environmental and health impacts of artificial turf: a review. Environmental science & technology48(4), 2114-2129.

[5] E.g. Re-Match Turf Recycling, Denmark: http://re-match.dk/