Brussels – Figures used to justify a proposed ban on the use of rubber infill in synthetic turf do not stand up to scrutiny, according to the EMEA Synthetic Turf Council (ESTC).
On 10 June, the European Chemical Agency’s Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC) recommended an EU ban on all ‘microplastics’ infills due to possible environmental releases.
These materials included granular infill materials from end-of-life tires and other synthetic elastomers, which have been classified as ‘intentionally-added microplastics’.
Such materials, according to figures presented by the ECHA, contribute to 16,000 tonnes per year of microplastics releases into the environment.
ESTC, however, insists infill migration is well below the levels suggested by the Helsinki-based chemicals agency, and can be further reduced by proper design and maintenance.
“We question the severity of the problem and are collecting data to… show that actual losses are much lower,” said ESTC technical director Alastair Cox.
Indeed, the ECHA figure of 16,000 tonnes of annual releases of microplastics is based on incorrect assumptions made in earlier studies, Cox added in a 22 June interview with ERJ.
Among other issues, that estimate failed to consider the effects of infill compaction, the European synthetic turf industry leader pointed out.
According to Cox, the issues with polymeric infill migrating into the marine environment were first identified in Scandinavia, where it snows heavily during wintertime.
When clearing the snow on the pitches, a considerable amount of rubber infill is also caught. This can be readily returned to the pitch, if stored nearby.
Some operators, however, have unknowingly dumped the snow into nearby rivers, thereby releasing rubber granules into the environment, Cox explained.
This issue prompted ECHA to include infill in a wide-ranging study launched four years ago to gauge the amount of microplastics releases.
But, continued Cox, this research did not calculate the mass balance of infill installed compared to infill lost, and only looked at how much additional infill was added to pitches annually.
“That figure is roughly a tonne per year and, with 17,000 pitches across Europe, it is easy to see how the ECHA came up with the figure 16,000 tonnes/year,” said Cox.
But, the ESTC technical director added, the amount of releases is significantly lower than the ECHA findings – with other studies putting releases at between 40kg to 70kg.
More recent studies on fields with containment features point to even smaller levels of release. These, though, were not completed in time for ECHA to take into consideration, he added.
The addition of a tonne per year of infill is to compensate for the infill compaction, not because the rubber has left the pitch, explained Cox.
The key to solving the confusion lies in the compaction effect caused by players running on the pitches as well as rain.
“To build a brand-new field, you typically have a 15mm layer of rubber granulate in the synthetic turf. As people run around these fields, that layer of rubber will compact, which means the grass-shaped fibre will stick out, become longer and therefore lean over on its side,” explained Cox.
When the fibre collapses, the surface properties change: balls roll faster, players can’t get a good grip because their studs can’t penetrate the rubber, and skin burns become more common as the players slide on the plastic fibres and not the rubber particles.
The addition of a tonne per year of infill is to compensate for the infill compaction and is needed to keep the fibre supported, and not because the rubber has left the pitch, Cox added.
With each football field typically spanning 8,000 square metre, the applying of a tonne/year of rubber infill equates a rubber layer by 0.3mm, but obviously compaction is greater in high-use areas of a field and less on the side margins, etc.
Costs of a ban
Over 13,600 existing full-size fields could be affected by a ban if polymeric infill is not available for on-going maintenance, according to Cox.
“If there are no rubber infills to maintain the fields, they deteriorate more rapidly, become unsafe and will have to be replaced prematurely,” he said.
Also switching to organic infills will be a costly exercise as most existing fields do not have shockpads and cannot be easily converted.
To convert a typical football field to organic-infill, a minimum work of at least €60,000 is required, which means the field operators would incur costs of nearly €1 billion if only 60% of existing fields were to be redone, according to Cox.
In many cases, however, this is not possible so they would incur the extra cost of resurfacing the field prematurely, bringing the total costs to over €1.5 billion.
There are alternative organic infills, such as cork, coconut shells, etc. on the market but according to Cox they have their own limitations.
Most organic infills float and are removed into the surround environment during heavy or prolonged periods of rainfall, meaning they are not considered suitable for some regions of Europe. Some are also unsuited to the cold winter climate seen in northern Europe; where the need for synthetic turf fields is high.
Some need to stay moist, meaning they may need regular watering, which adds to construction and operation costs. In addition, this option is impractical in hot and dry countries to the south and east of Europe.
“Whilst the organic infill materials have a place in the market, they are not a complete solution and a means of replacing the rubber infill,” he added.
In addition, stringent standards and sporting regulations, currently rule out the option of pitches with no infill at all, which are considered by many to be of lower sports quality compared to carpets with infills.
Natural grass fields are also not a realistic option, due to their short lifetime, their limited usage capacity, high maintenance needs and their climatic requirements.
What to do next?
ESTC is of the belief that a ban is not the answer to the problem and a six-year transition ahead of the ban will only reduce investment in the industry.
“The implications of a ban are that you will probably end up with less fields for the society and reduced social participation and public health,” the technical director noted.
Instead, the trade association has teamed up with the European Standards Committee to develop a report that promotes the use of the so-called ‘containment barriers’ to keep the infill in the fields.
These include erecting barriers around the perimeter, putting matts around the field and placing filters in the drains which can all help reduce the level of contamination.
The ESTC has also started a series of lobbying activities with the European Union member states to inform them of the gaps in ECHA figures and to promote the risk management measures that can be implemented to reduce the releases.
The trade body is asking that derogation be granted to synthetic turf infill providing risk management measures are implemented. This, it says, can be ensured by making the use of containment measures, a condition of derogation.
Additionally, such measures should be retro-fitted to all existing fields as soon as possible, or at the latest, when the field is next resurfaced, he concluded.
Rubber industry dismay
The European Tyre & Rubber Manufacturers’ Association (ETRMA) described the ECHA move as ‘disproportionate’ which could cost Europe in excess of €1.5 billion.
“There are ways to control the spread of infill materials placed in fields and we hope that the [second ECHA committee] SEAC’s opinion shall balance the benefits and downsides of the measure,” ETRMA secretary general Fazilet Cinaralp told ERJ 11 June.
According to ETRMA, some 527,000 tonnes of ELTs – 30% of market share – are processed to be used as infill materials in Europe.
In the case of a ban, this volume would need to be used in other applications or into energy recovery, which is in conflict with EU waste hierarchy principle.
ETRMA maintains that the rubber granulate used for infill is heavier than water and does not leave the pitch by itself, nor by wind nor by rain.
With simple measures, it said, the losses into the environment can be reduced to about 10 grams per pitch and year.
“ETRMA welcomes the position of ESTC and EURIC to ensure all fields throughout Europe incorporate containment measures,” it noted.
Also commenting on the move, the European Tyre Recycling Association (ETRA) said the decision to propose a ban was 'unfortunate'.
"The process is not yet finished, as it is still missing the opinion of SEAC Committee which is expected in the Autumn of 2020 and then the final decision of ECHA is expected in 2021," ETRA added in a statement 12 June.
However, it said, the RAC opinion will impact on the ongoing ECHA process and the final decision, posing "serious concerns" about the future possibility of using rubber infill materials in artificial turf.