PFAS-coated clothes that are thrown away will often end up either incinerated or in landfill. Unless incinerated at very high temperatures (>1000oC), fluorinated polymers could release more harmful PFAS during burning. PFAS of environmental concern have also been found in landfill leachate. PFAS is found in treated waste water from industrial and domestic sources and has been found in both rivers and groundwater. Conventional drinking water processes will not remove PFAS.Small quantities of PFAS will be removed during wash and wear of products containing PFAS. This includes fluorinated polymers used on stain-resistant coatings, and non-polymers that remain on clothes after production (Lassen et al. 2015).Non-polymer PFAS can build up in blood protein of animals, and is not always removed quickly. This means that predators eating PFAS-contaminated food will have higher levels in their bloodstream, and concentrations can increase up the food chain. Studies suggest that build up of PFAS is similar to those of other Persistent Organic Pollutants such as DDT.PFAS are estimated to be settling in arctic regions at rates of tens to hundreds of kilograms per year (25-850kg per year), depending on the specific PFAS chemical in question. Certain PFAS are released as gases to the environment and are blown a long way by wind and air currents in the atmosphere,. These gas PFAS will over time degrade to more persistent chemicals like PFOS and PFOA. This may be one reason why PFAS of environmental concern have been found in remote regions such as the Arctic as well as near PFAS production sitesPFAS including PFOS and PFOA have been found in air samples around Europe. The chemicals are found in small quantities, but appear in almost all samples tested. PFAS enters the atmosphere both from factories and the air inside our homes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17554424 Non-polymer PFAS are used in the production of fluorinated polymers. The manufacture of stain-resistant finishes generally releases these PFASs into the environment, both by air and water emissions. They are very hard to remove during water treatment. Workers in textiles factories are some of the population most exposed to these potentially harmful chemicals.

Plastic Pitches – The problem

The first artificial pitch surface was called ‘Chemgrass’ which came on the market in 1965. Since then, artificial grass has become increasingly popular for sports and landscaping. The number of full-size artificial sports pitches in Europe grew threefold between 2006-2012, with the help of 3G technology, and new pitches continue to be built year on year [1].

A local sports pitch is a great opportunity for outdoor play, whether it’s natural or synthetic. But did you know that 3G 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

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. These loose granules sit in between the strands of ‘grass’ filaments on the top of the carpet. The use of infill is especially important for contact sports like football and rugby to reduce injury risk.

The most common performance infill is made of a synthetic rubber called Styrene Butadiene rubber (SBR). However, other materials can also be used as infill, including other types of plastic and organic alternatives like cork or wood. Nevertheless, SBR ‘rubber crumb’ is used on the majority of pitches. It is produced by grinding up old vehicle tyres that have reached their end of life as a tyre.

If you’ve ever played on a field like this you’ll probably notice the little granules turning up in your shoes, or in your kit. 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. Microplastic can also be lost during installation and removal of pitches, in handling and refilling of infill, and leaks can continue even after the pitch has been thrown away.

How much is lost?

Though current estimates of infill loss are uncertain, it is clear that significant losses do occur.

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. This amounts to approximately 72,000 tonnes of ‘lost infill’ across Europe every year.

It is difficult to know exactly how much of this ‘lost granule’ ends up in the environment but microplastic loss is well documented. Field studies show large variation across pitches, however on average about 10% ends up down drains (~900-8000 tonnes of granules), in stormwater and local watercourses, while almost half is likely to build up in nearby soil and grass (8000-32500 tonnes per year) [2]. In fact, a field study in the Netherlands found up to 70kg per year entering nearby water courses from a single pitch [3]. It is also true that some will also end up in municipal waste or compacted into the base of the pitch.

Toxic leaching

The most common type of performance infill is rubber, which is usually made from ground up old car and lorry tyres. The rubber, and other types of plastic performance infill, can contain quantities of potentially harmful chemicals and heavy metals. End of life tyre rubber is known to have hazardous chemicals ranging from bisphenol A to polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) [4], and the properties of this ‘micro-rubber’ mean they are more likely to associate with persistent organic pollutants in the environment [5].

These chemical can leach out over time, and will continue to escape from granules sitting on the pitch, in soil or water. Studies show that zinc , associated with old tyre rubber, can leach from fields in quantities that harm the environment [6-7]. Laboratory studies further show how these leached chemicals, as well as the particles themselves, can harm animals in both soil  and water environments. Development of chicken embryos [8], response in earthworms [9] and effects on freshwater fish [10] have all been studied.

Disposal of Artificial Pitches

Artificial pitches should be replaced every 8 to 10 years, to ensure a safe and comfortable playing surface. This creates a problem; what do you do with a pitch when it is removed?

An artificial turf pitch is made up of different layers. These layers are made of different types of plastic, rubber, and other materials. The mix of materials means there is no easy way to recycle the entire pitch and even harder to know how to dispose of the pitch when it can no longer be used; particularly as shredded rubber granules from tyres are banned from landfill.

New advances in technology are making it easier to recycle pitches, but there is currently only one company across Europe that can effectively recycle 3G pitches into new products. New technology can lift out, shred and sort pitches, letting 99% material be reused or recycled [11] .

As a result, stockpiling, illegal disposal and misleading ‘recycling services’ [12-13] can lead to more environmental problems. This can include plastic pollution from disintegrating carpet, mountains of discarded infill releasing microplastic dust, and even toxic fires [14].

To avoid further environmental problems, which are rapidly increasing considering the lack of widespread infrastructure to deal with artificial pitches currently in use, we are calling for all pitches to be 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 encouraging microplastic-free pitches, making sure plastic stays on the pitch where used and sensible reuse or recycling at the end of its life.

Cleaner Pitch Guidelines

We have collated guidelines to show what can be done to tackle microplastic from pitches, with ideas for pitch design, maintenance and use.

Promoting best practice

From encouraging use of alternative materials, to promoting simple barriers on pitches, we’re encouraging action at all stages of building and using a pitch.

Pitch In for Communities

We’ve created a Pitch In community hub with activities and resources to help those playing on pitches to learn about the problem and take action.

Research and policy

We’re sharing our learning and expertise with decision makers. Our consultation responses and position papers are available online.

Take Action

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

I use sports pitches

I’m involved in providing or managing pitches

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] Eunomia (2018)

[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] Sicco H. et al. (2019) Chlorinated Paraffins in Car Tires Recycled to Rubber Granulates and Playground Tiles. Environmental Science and Technology, 53 (13) 7595-7603

[5] Halle L. et al. (2020) Ecotoxicology of micronized tire rubber: Past, present and future. Science of the Total Environment

[6] Verschoor, A. (2015) Leaching of zinc from rubber infill on artificial turf (football pitches), RIVM report 601774001/2007 

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

[8] Xu et al. (2019) Artificial turf infill associated with systematic toxicity in an amniote vertebrate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116 (50) 25156-25161

[9] Pochron et al. (2017) The response of earthworms (Eisenia fetida) and soil microbes to the crumb rubber material used in artificial turf fields. Chemosphere, 173, 557-562. 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2017.01.091

[10] Kolomijeca, A. et al. (2020) Increased temperature and turbulence alter the effects of leachates from tire particles on fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas) Environmental Science and Technology

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

[12] Zembla (2018) What happens to plastic and polluting artificial turf?

[13] E.g. loose ‘recycled rubber crumb’ offered as playground or animal substrate https://www.chapsmithservices.co.uk/synthetic-surfaces-astroturf-removal-and-disposal/

[14] See notes to specific fires in California & Washington in this US blog article.