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.

Solutions

Rubber crumb removed from a beach in Hong Kong. Photo Credit: Plastic Free Seas

Solutions to microplastic loss

Where possible, playing fields without the use of microplastic are an obvious way to avoid negative issues from microplastic use. If microplastic can’t be avoided, then there are still many practical options to minimise leaks into the environment.

Alternatives to microplastic

The best way to avoid microplastic escaping into the environment is, of course, not to use it in the first place. With a growing range of alternatives available we think microplastic infill may soon be a thing of the past. Many communities are avoiding microplastic infill, or even artificial pitches entirely, and are still getting plenty of access to outdoor play.

Natural Grass

Communities face tough choices when investing in outdoor pitches and finding suitable sport sites. The perfect pitch for one site may not work for another and it all depends on where the pitch is placed is and how it is going to be used.

From a Fidra perspective, we would always recommend that communities consider natural grass over artificial pitches considering the biodiversity and wellbeing benefits of greenspaces. However, we’re aware that a manicured pitch is far from being a ‘natural’ surface and comes with its own potential environmental impacts. We want to see maximum community benefit from sports fields, with minimal environmental impact, which is something to think about whatever surface you choose.

Check out our blog comparing environmental impacts of different sports surfaces: Is grass always greener?

Alternative Infills

3G sports pitches need to be topped with a relatively soft performance infill to recreate the feel of real grass and reduce risk of injury. Synthetic rubber is by far the most common material used, partly because it is well-suited to providing the right level of ‘bounce’, but also because waste rubber from tyres is a material that is readily available and cheap. However, this is not the only material on the market. There are natural, biodegradable materials that can be used instead of synthetic microplastic to provide the same quality of play. As more communities choose to find alternatives to rubber crumb, a growing range of alternative infills are coming on the market.

Choosing an infill can be tricky as each material has different advantages and disadvantages. Alternative organic infills can be more expensive per tonne than rubber from old tyres, although you may be able to use less of it, meaning the total cost might actually be lower. Some alternative infills marketed as ‘environmentally friendly’ are still microplastics, or blends between organic and synthetic materials, that won’t biodegrade in the environment.

Natural materials for alternative infills:

Infills created using natural or organic materials can be used as alternatives to SBR (rubber crumb) or other synthetic polymer infills. They provide potential for sustainable, durable and non -toxic alternatives. Often, organic materials allow for cooler playing surfaces, providing water retention and natural evaporation processes, and reduced static friction. At the end of life, these infills are safer and easier to dispose of, recycle or re-purpose without negative environmental impacts.

Here is a list of alternative infills currently available on the market.

Infill material:
  • Material description:
  • Product name:
  • Product description:
  • Product name:
  • Product description:
  • Product name:
  • Product description:
  • Product name:
  • Product description:
Cork
Mixed Organic Material
Olive stone
  • A waste product of the olive oil industry, providing a durable and sustainable alternative material.
  • Infill made from European olive cores
Walnut shell
  • An option that is sustainable, a waste material, and naturally durable, providing a low maintenance organic infill
  • Infill blend of black and English walnut shells
Wood
  • If sustainably sourced, a suitable organic material for infill products
  • Engineered wood particle
Microplastic
  • Red herrings. A list of infill products with names implying natural materials but containing microplastic components or coatings
  • Bionic Fibre (Melos GmbH)
  • Sulphur cured EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer) rubber
  • SuperNatural (AstroTurf)
  • EPDM woven with hemp
  • Envirofill (USGreentech)
  • Sand with acrylic polymer coating
  • Fusion GT Green Technology (Polytan)
  • EPDM fused with natural fibres
  • Saltex Biofill (Unisport)
  • PLA (bioplastic)

Have you found alternatives on the market that aren’t listed here?

Let us know. If you see a product that is missing and fits the criteria for a natural (organic), non-toxic and sustainable alternative to microplastic / polymer infills, then please get in touch by sending an email to info@fidra.org.uk, and we will include it.

Keen to show off your natural infill in use?

We are also looking for case studies to highlight the use of these infills. Do you have experience of playing on, designing or constructing pitches using alternative infills? Or perhaps you plan to use an alternative to microplastic infill? Then please get in touch to produce a case study with us.

Non-infill and hybrid pitches

 

Alternative artificial pitches that don’t need any infill are also becoming more popular, particularly with 5-aside pitches or community fields. A range of manufacturers are now providing technical solutions to make these surfaces match the quality, safety and durability of pitches with infill.

Another option might be to opt for a hybrid pitch – these use a combination of natural grass and synthetic fibers. Real soil can be used to fill in the structure of the pitch, avoiding the need for microplastic infill.

Research and Innovation

 

With more communities avoiding microplastic infill, demand is growing for alternatives that allow maximum access to good quality training, while minimising environmental impact.

We’re calling for microplastic, chemical and circular economy issues to be factored into ongoing research, both for artificial and natural surfaces.

Stopping Microplastic Loss

The majority of artificial pitches still use loose microplastic infill and while rubber crumb remains a cheap and effective option, this isn’t likely to change. There are lots of ways to make sure that microplastic remains on the pitch, but to really minimise loss requires action from pitch designers, owners and users.

Examples of a pitch in Denmark using barriers to stop microplastic loss Photo credit: © LOA-Fonden, Rune Johansen.

Mitigation through physical barriers

 

Most pitches have been created without considering the issue microplastic pollution. This means infill can easily escape from pitch edges due to the lack of physical barrier. Boot brushes are often set up outside the fence, to avoid mud getting on the pitch, rather than stop microplastic coming off. In many cases, simple changes can be made to significantly reduce risk of losses: from adding kick-boards around the pitch perimeter to filters in nearby drains.

When building a new pitch, it can be relatively straightforward to add these physical barriers without a significant increase to the overall budget. You can even save money by using less infill overall.

Existing pitches can use temporary measures to minimise losses before bigger changes are made during a refurbishment cycle. Even where you are planning to use alternative infills, adding physical barriers can be sensible to avoid losing infill; especially as organic infill is often lighter and more mobile than microplastics like the commonly used SBR rubber crumb.

Maintenance and pitch user behavior

 

Microplastic is lost during routine maintenance of pitches. It is also trodden off by players when the microplastic sticks to their boots and kit. Small practical changes to the way that pitches are brushed, cleaned and de-compacted can reduce the amount of infill that comes off the edges of the pitch during maintenance. For pitch users, it can be as simple as making sure that players shake out their boots out over a bin or on the pitch, rather than outside or down the drain.

These practical steps can make a difference if everyone ‘pitches in’, and that’s why we have collated guidelines which will help all those using or interacting with 3G pitches to do their part. But while we still use microplastic we will never completely stop pollution. That’s why we’d like to see ongoing focus on using alternative materials, particularly for new pitches.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the various options to tackling microplastic loss from 3G pitches, check out our Guidelines for cleaner pitches.

Photo credit: www.sportsequip.co.uk

A new briefing available about microplastic from sports pitches.

We’ve teamed up with organisations from across northern Europe to take a detailed look at the issue of microplastics on sports pitches, and the solutions available. We think it’s time to phase out the use of microplastics from pitches and this document provides evidence to support our position.

The new report is collated and written by Fidra with support from KIMO International, Naturvernvorbundet (Friends of the Earth Norway), Green Transition Denmark, Norwegian University of Science and Technology Center for Sports Facilities and Technology, The Plastic Soup Foundation

FAQs

Can we use barriers to prevent loss?

Yes, technical mitigation has the potential to significantly reduce losses to the environment, but they cannot eliminate all losses and existing measures have not yet been assessed sufficiently to prove effectiveness. 

A number of mitigation measures have been proposed to reduce microplastic from pitches including fitting physical barriers, adapting maintenance techniques and changing user behaviour. We, at Fidra, along with KIMO international, collated and produced a set of guidelines as an attempt to summarise potential techniques, as well as considering alternative infill or pitch-types to reduce losses[1]. The goal of collating these practices was to encourage further refinement, testing and standardisation of these techniques by industry or academia, and promoting uptake of best practice into industry standards. Currently, very few studies have assessed the effectiveness of these measures, and pitches are regularly built without mitigation in place. We are however developing case studies of where these have been introduced to start to understand the challenges and solutions to implementation in practice.

The 2019 study of a pitch in Kalmar, Sweden [2]represents the first attempt to quantify effectiveness of technical mitigation measures. The study shows how the measures tested have potential to be highly effective, but there are limitations to its applicability:

  • The study does not assess losses to soil/ pavements, where most pollution has been observed, but instead focuses only on stormwater.
  • The pilot involved using very stringent measures and participation of all users & maintenance teams involved in the pitch. It is unrealistic for these measures to be followed so carefully every time they are used, across all pitches in Europe.

With certain regions beginning to implement such measures on pitches, further monitoring studies should be possible (and some may already be underway). With so many potential pathways to loss, mitigation techniques will never stop 100% of infill loss across all pitches.

 

[1] https://www.fidra.org.uk/artificial-pitches/cleaner-pitch-guidelines/

[2] https://www.genan.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/MP-dispersal-from-Bergavik-IP-Kalmar-Report.pdf

Is the recycling of old tyres for infill a positive thing?

Infill from old tyres is probably better described as re purposing. Although a positive that they have a second purpose after their use as a tyre, 3G pitches are not necessarily a solution to the end of life disposal of tyres – they simply delay the problem. This is because end of life of pitches themselves is a key issue which has been overlooked for for both the artificial turf carpet as well as the tyre or microplastic infill. This has a direct impact on the microplastics problem. Stockpiling of turf and infill has been shown to be commonplace, and furthermore, contribute to additional sources of microplastic loss[1], alongside other pollution problems (including fires[2]). Certain pitch ‘recycling’ companies offer segments of turf or loose refill to be reused in landscaping or as animal substrate[3], however, this older material is likely to disintegrate over time, creating finer powders that are more easily dispersed by the wind/ water and more likely to be emitted[4].

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

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

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

[4] Magnusson, Kerstin, Karin Eliasson, Anna Fråne, Kalle Haikonen, Johan Hultén, Mikael Olshammar, Johanna Stadmark, and Anais Voisin. “Swedish Sources and Pathways for Microplastics to the Marine Environment. A Review of Existing Data.” IVL Svenska Miljöinstitutet, no. C 183 (2016): 1–89.

Can we use the Operation Clean Sweep model to prevent losses on pitches?

Basic similarities in technical mitigation between rubber crumb and pellets does not mean that Operation Clean Sweep is a model solution for artificial pitches.

There are similarities between OCS and some best practice required, for example in storage and transport of infill, as many similar rules apply in terms of ensuring storage is safe and will not lead to spills. The same principles apply; Any spills should be cleaned up and not washed down drains.

On pitches themselves, OCS guidelines would not be relevant. Specific measures are very different. Most basically, a 3G pitch requires large volumes of microplastic to be kept loose outdoors, something that would not be acceptable according to OCS guidelines. OCS measures are intended for large industrial facilities that are maintained by professionals, which is not comparable to sports pitches regularly used and maintained by volunteers / the public. It is also important to highlight that OCS has been in place for almost 30 years and has not been successful in stopping industrial plastic pellet loss. OCS comprises a set of recommendations of best practice combined with a voluntary commitment to zero loss.  There are similar recommendations available for reducing microplastic loss from pitches, including a newly drafted Eurocode specifying design features to reduce microplastic loss. As is the case with OCS, what is missing is the obligation and oversight to ensure these measures are universally and effectively implemented.

How much infill is actually lost from pitches?

Though current estimates of loss are uncertain, significant losses do occur; not only to drains but also to the local environment.

Initial estimates of infill loss have been made by examining the total quantity of infill that is required to be ‘topped up’ each year at an individual pitch[1]. Microplastic pollution from pitches is well-documented. Field studies indicate that it is not unusual for several hundred kilograms a year to migrate from the edge of pitches into nearby soil & grass, with a proportion of infill (on occasion up to ~70kg pa) found in stormwater and local watercourses. Particular practices, such as poorly managed snow removal, have led to far greater losses (and larger required top-ups) over a single season, with clear evidence of pollution of local land & aqueous ecosystems (Figure 1)[2].

Most studies assume that not all of this ‘lost infill’ necessarily leaks to the environment, as some enters the waste stream and some potentially stays on the pitch through compaction or redistribution[3]. More recently, a desk-based study used mass-balance calculations comparing various field studies to the total weight of infill top-up to suggest that up to 75% of infill top-up is due to compaction[4], leading the Dossier Submitter to re-evaluate quantities of loss. Another recent pilot study by Ecoloop claims that mitigation measures can effectively reduce emissions to zero[5]. We consider the revised figures are likely to be under-estimating loss for the following reasons:

  • Though compaction could be the cause of some required infill top-up, this is unlikely to be a significant sink, as this would lead to an unwanted hardening of the pitch surface over time and pitches undergo regular decompaction treatment to avoid this[6]. New research has assessed the weight of pitches entering recycling centres at the end of their lifespan, showing no difference between the weight of a pitch at the start vs end of its life, suggesting that ‘lost infill’ does not remain on the pitch[7].
  • No reports have quantified potential losses during installation and removal, storage and transport of infill, which are all likely to be additional routes of loss.
  • Due to technical limitations there has been no assessment of smaller tyre particles, created by wear of rubber crumb, EPDM and TPE[8], which have the potential to migrate further and be transported via different pathways.
  • As highlighted by the RAC committee, even infill ending up in waste disposal are not guaranteed to be contained and remain at risk of loss to the environment[9]. These potential losses have not been factored into these studies.

However, even with revised estimates of loss, quantities escaping to the environment are clearly sufficient to warrant action.

 

[1] E.g. Lassen et al. (2015) Occurrence, effects and sources of microplastic releases to the environment in Denmark.

[2] Sundt, Schulze and Syversen (2014), Sources of microplastic-pollution to the marine environment. Report by mepex to the Norwegian Environment Agency

[3] Review of studies in Eunomia

[4] Lokkegaard et al. (2019) Mass balance of rubber granulate lost from artificial turf fields, focusing on discharge to the aquatic environment. Report by Danish Technological Institute for Genan A/S

[5] Regnell, F. (2019) Dispersal of microplastic from a modern artificial turf pitch with preventive measures. Report by Ecoloop to Ragnsells tyre recycling

[6] Paul Fleming, pers. comm. and Fleming et al. (2015) Understanding the effects of decompaction maintenance on the infill state and play performance of third-generation artificial grass pitches. Journal of Sports Engineering and Technology 229 (3) 169-182

[7] Aas, B. (in prep) Norwegian Institute of Technology

[8] Olofsson & Lyu (2019) A Pendulum Rig study on airborne migration of particles from artificial football turf. Proceedings of BALTTRIB’2019

[9] RAC notes that municipal solid waste pathway has an overall release factor of approximately 0.5%

If you’re interested in finding out more about the various options to tackling microplastic loss from 3G pitches, check out our Guidelines for Cleaner Pitches.