The hidden environmental cost of artificial sports pitches

9 October 2019

The arrival of the artificial grass pitch was a major leap forward for sports enthusiasts active in colder, wetter climes, used to scrabbling around on muddy pitches. Fast forward forty or so years and we now have third generation artificial turf pitches that have overcome the ‘performance problems’ associated with early solutions. But at what cost?

Recent research has shown that microplastics are now ubiquitous and are even present in our drinking water. But where are they coming from?

One source is the most commonly used form of artificial grass pitch, used worldwide to provide playable conditions on sports pitches where climates do not favour use of natural grass. This type of artificial pitch uses a rubber crumb infill composed largely of recycled tyres to allow appropriate performance both for players and the ball. The problem is this infill material is easily lost from pitches on the skin and clothing of players, as well as being blown or washed out of stadiums by wind and rain. When it is lost from pitches it finds its way into our watercourses sometimes via our sewers (which may or may not have the ability to remove microplastics). The net result is a proportion escapes ultimately into our rivers and oceans and becomes marine litter.

Preventing microplastic loss from artificial grass pitches

Many players using artificial grass pitches will likely be surprised to hear about this microplastic risk – there is little public awareness of this marine litter issue unlike the more visible plastic waste found on beaches. This is despite a current European consultation into banning artificial grass pitch infill to protect the environment.

Fortunately, there are multiple solutions, which reduce or prevent microplastic loss from artificial grass pitches, all of which have their own pros and cons. They are also at differing levels of market maturity. These include:

  • Hybrid pitches – injected plastic grass strands used to reinforce natural grass pitches;
  • Non-infill pitches – no performance infill (only appropriate for certain sports and levels of play);
  • Alternative infill – examples include cork, walnut shells and coconut husk;
  • Use of shockpads – layer underneath artificial turf carpet which acts as a cushioning pad;
  • Use of recycled materials – circling waste material from old pitches into building new pitches, providing a demand for waste materials.

There are also infrastructure solutions that prevent the loss of the microplastic infill:

  • Solid boundary – 1-1.5m tarmac border that maintenance staff can easily sweep lost infill from;
  • Elevated boundary – curb angled towards the pitch to prevent loss from infill spray;
  • Low level perimeter boarding – solid wall to trap infill within pitch boundaries;
  • Silt traps over drains – captures infill at risk of being washed away;
  • Entrance and exit infill removal stations – so players can brush infill off clothes and boots;
  • Shower drain filters – captures infill players wash off in the shower; and
  • Bins in changing rooms – where players can shake infill off their kit.

Barriers to change

With so many potential solutions available, this may sound like a situation under control. However, these solutions generally cost more than other options and are therefore not often chosen. Plus new industry standards need to be developed to assess these innovative products to regulate their use. And just as the plastics debate has at times eclipsed broader issues of resource efficiency and life cycle impacts, the problem of microplastic loss from artificial grass pitches has overshadowed arguably the biggest problem for this industry: waste management.

Turf mountains of waste

Waste management has become a huge problem for this industry. Artificial grass pitches last roughly 8-10 years. With the market booming in the early 2000s, many original pitches have now been replaced. The cost of landfilling artificial grass is high and there are no verified recycling options available in the UK at present.

This industry is very competitive and to win contracts, prices for waste disposal have been slashed. But ‘disposing’ of this waste so cheaply, more often than not means irresponsible, if not illegal, waste management. Turf mountains are stockpiled at unregulated sites, leading to high risks of environmental pollution, as well as safety hazards such as fires.

When comparing the loss of a percentage of infill annually to the problem with disposal of whole pitches, it gives us a sense of perspective. On that basis, while we encourage conversations about microplastic pollution, it seems that far more conversations are needed to address barriers to responsible artificial grass waste management as a priority.

As with other waste management issues, tackling this problem will need engagement from the whole supply chain. Education and behaviour change will also be crucial to ensure everyone understands the problem and can contribute to the solutions.

Unlike many other waste management and environmental issues, however, multiple solutions can be supplied. The question remains: how do we trigger the demand?