Microplastics & Artificial Pitches: The Facts

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by Eric O’Donnell, Managing Director

Recently there has been some adverse press concerning microplastics and artificial pitches, so we thought you would be interested in learning more about this issue and how it might affect the industry.

We were astounded to learn that a microplastic particle is not that micro. Particles that are smaller than 5mm fall under the definition of a microplastic – so not so little. This clarification raises a valid concern that performance infill such as granulated rubber particles in the form of SBR and or EPDM/TPU can all be umbrellaed under the definition of microplastic particles and, as such, can be targeted for scrutiny by environmentalists, the media, and government bodies.

In addition to performance infill being subject to scrutiny, plastic fibres which make up the turf system are a potential concern because loose filaments migrate outside the field-of-play and fibres can break down and further introduce synthetic fragments into surrounding soils and watercourses. This movement could be a problem, and it is something we should be concerned about and mitigate against actively. The good news is that we can, and it is quite easy to do. 

What is the extent of the potential problem?
Some facts and figures on microplastics

The biggest culprits which generate microplastics are those derived from road tires and textiles. These are a more significant source of marine pollution than the breakdown of more massive plastic waste in some areas, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Up to 30% of plastic released into the oceans each year comes from primary microplastics, not the disintegration of larger pieces. Debris from tire abrasion and synthetic fabrics are the primary sources. The IUCN reviewed data from seven global regions to look at how much of the estimated 9.5 million tonnes of new plastic waste released into the oceans each year comes from primary microplastics. Primary is a term used to define tiny plastic particles from consumer products rather than a degradation of larger bits of plastic within the oceans.

The report found between 15% and 31% of plastic pollution came from primary microplastics and the most prominent contributors, at nearly two-thirds, come from the abrasion of synthetic textiles while washing, and the abrasion of tires while driving.

Synthetic rubber, made from a variant of plastic, makes up around 60% of the rubber used in tires. Other sources included microbeads in cosmetics, which contribute about 2% of the releases into oceans globally.

François Simard, deputy director of IUCN's marine programme, said the findings came as a surprise. "We discovered that most of the microplastics are coming from either the clothes or from the tires," he told BBC News. "Microplastics are going everywhere -- in the sea and into the food chain -- let's close the plastic tap."

The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) published an environmental impact study on rubber granulate in 2018. The study shows that the use of rubber granulate infill on synthetic turf pitches may lead to local contamination of soil borders around sports pitches and of sludge at the bottom of ditches. This contamination consists of rubber particles and substances that leach out of rubber granulate. Groundwater and surface water seem to be uncontaminated, so the risk of more widespread dispersal of the substances appears to be minimal.

What about artificial turf fields? How much do they account for plastics in our oceans?

Data on this is mainly coming from Scandinavia and while we must not in any way be complacent, the volume of microplastics derived from artificial turf is minimal.

•    Contamination on install
The main issue here is spillage, a lack of care in handling components, awareness of the need to contain fibres and rubber granulate on-site.

•    The annual loss of infill
Materials are transported off the playing fields whenever artificial fields are used and can sometimes be found in the surrounding landscaping, buildings, and even washing machines. Estimates provided in a report to the Norwegian Environment Agency suggest that up to 70kg of rubber is lost from each field every year. [1] This figure appears to be inconsistent with the amount of rubber which can be used to top up the field which can be 1 to 3 tonnes per annum. Educating users in good housekeeping practices and installing cheap decontamination areas with brushes, compressed air and collection facilities would go a long way to reducing this issue significantly.

•    Aging of turf – The breakdown of fibre fragments and dust

Turf filaments are plastic, and while they are highly durable, they do age. Old fields will undoubtedly see a loss in pile length when filaments beak off and deposit into the pitch where they become vulnerable to being washed out into the hardstanding areas around the field. But it is possible with the use of specialist grooming equipment to collect these filaments and dispose of them responsibly. Furthermore, fields could be designed to introduce measures to prevent filaments leaving the playing area altogether, successfully retaining them in the playing area where they belong.

•    Refurbishment of the old pitch

This may be one of the areas to causing the most concern. The refurbishment of old pitches has the potential to create a lot of waste, spillage, and contamination. Educating contractors and implementing traceable measures to track disposal methodologies can significantly mitigate these issues. There is growing interest in recycling and so an ever-increasing amount of old turf and infill is being recycled.

Putting everything into context
Is there a trade-off for the risk?

There is a significant trade-off and society needs to square the equation of health against encouraging health. Mass participation in sport contributes to public health by encouraging communities to exercise. Sport – and, in particular, team sports on artificial pitches – provide many additional outcomes such as social engagement, team building, self-discipline and responsibility. These immeasurable benefits enhance the quality of life in our communities and must be balanced against the knowledge that improperly maintained artificial pitches can potentially become a source, however small, of microplastic generation.

How can we reduce the potential risks?

1.   Design features into your pitch which mitigate contamination of rubber or fibre fragments into the environment

2.   Within the procurement strategy, highlight microplastics as an issue and value strategies which reduce the risks of contamination within the tender process

3.   Operate a careful site at installation – force measures to minimize contamination of the environment with infill and other sources of plastic

4.   Conduct proper maintenance when caring for your field by introducing a brush, hoover, and filter onto your maintenance equipment

5.   At the end-of-life, employ strategies which stop old infill and turf contaminating the area around the field due to poor handling and disposal approaches.

6.   Create a quality mark for reducing microplastics in the environment

7.   The industry could create a quality mark which recognises companies taking measures to reduce the risk of contamination from microplastics. This quality mark would encourage suppliers, contractors and installers to be more aware and take account of this issue when constructing or refurbishing a field. Owners need to be educated on good practice when it comes to managing their clients and maintaining their fields.

In summary, with the introduction of some low-cost measures, the microplastic issue surrounding artificial fields can be managed, and the risks to the environment can be minimised, if not fully eliminated.

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1.   Mepex (2016) Primary microplastic pollution: Measures and reduction potentials in Norway. http://www.miljodirektoratet.no/Documents/publikasjoner/M545/M545.pdf