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Infill granules in the spotlight: the future of artificial turf sports facilities
There has been a great deal of commotion recently about a planned EU-wide ban on artificial turf infill granules. So here we provide an overview of the matter, potential changes and what planning should be undertaken. There are also statements on the situation and the debate from academia, planners, sector associations and manufacturers.
"The Horror of Artificial Turf Sports Facilities" (FAZ-online, 21.07.2019), "Football Grounds Faced With Closure - the Final Whistle is Being Blown on Microfibre Granules" (taz, 17.07.2019) "Artificial Turf Sports Facilities Face RED CARD? Clean-up Threatens Amateur Football With Cost Chaos" (Bild-online, 21.07.2019) – anyone who has seen the headlines about the artificial turf granules debate in the last few weeks could swiftly conclude that an EU-wide ban on artificial turf sports surfaces is imminent - and in a worst-case scenario could be imposed in the next two years. And although the EU has been prompted to play down several theses, a number of questions remain unanswered. And it's a matter that affects not only thousands of local authorities and sports associations but also millions of sports enthusiasts throughout the EU. According to UEFA, there are 25,250 artificial turf sports facilities in 20 of the 28 EU member states alone (there are no figures for France and Spain), including 6,500 in Germany (the German Football Association estimates 5,000 + 1,000 mini pitches). This total underlines the dimensions of future political decisions. However, there is currently more speculation than hard facts about the form they will take. At this juncture it is appropriate to provide an overview of what may lie ahead and how best to deal with the scenario in terms of planning and the maintenance of artificial turf sports facilities.
Bone of contention 1 – the Fraunhofer study
On 21 June 2018 a study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety, and Energy Technology UMSICHT was published entitled "Plastics in the environment: micro- and macroplastics". This includes a list in tabular form with releases of primary microplastic from various sources in Germany. Here pellet losses and wind-blown dispersal from sports facilities and playgrounds were behind only tyre abrasion, waste disposal and bitumen abrasion as the fourth-largest source of microplastics in the country. The release value of artificial turf football pitches was especially high, without the report providing further clarification. Responding to an enquiry from Sports & Leisure Facilities, the Fraunhofer Institut UMSICHT disclosed that there is no specific research into releases from artificial turf pitches in connection with the study and that the figures are based on estimates. The Institute is now seeking to secure funding for a specific study.
In addition to the lack of scientific basis, there has also been widespread criticism that the amount of artificial turf granulate chiefly responsible for the high release value in the estimates was calculated on the basis of a flawed fundamental assumption. The typical construction method in Germany means that the volume of granules on artificial turf pitches is significantly lower than calculated in the study because an elastic layer generally inserted under the artificial turf surfaces significantly reduces the required volume of infill granules per square metre. This differs from construction methods in other EU countries. So although the study highlights a fundamental problem, the figures are not tenable.
Bone of contention 2 – the ECHA restrictions
However, the real catalyst for public discussion of artificial turf granules was the planned ECHA restrictions. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) was entrusted by the European Commission with the task of investigating the role of microplastic in the environment and made specific proposals for avoiding use of this environmentally-harmful material in the future. Here it should be borne in mind that there are currently three restriction processes in connection with infill granules. One concerns the restriction of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), for which the permitted threshold values in sports facility construction are to be significantly reduced (for comparison on the topic S&L 03/2018). This exclusively concerns SBR granules. The health risks of all other plastic granules in sports facility construction should also be investigated. These two processes are running in parallel with the third and largest of these ECHA restrictions, namely the "restriction in the use of microplastic particles that are intentionally added to mixtures used by consumers or professionals." Here the focus is on microplastic additions in all products – in particular in cosmetics and care products. But also on infill granules on artificial turf playing surfaces – i.e. SBR, EPDM and TPE granules. These can reach the environment through dispersal, wastewater and removal, thus causing harm. At the moment the ECHA is recommending that products with microplastic additions should no longer be put into circulation in the near future. This would also apply to infill granules and the measure could come into effect as soon as 2022.
However: at the moment this is a draft recommendation of the ECHA which is is not being publicly debated and will only be presented to the European Commission for resolution after this process and further recommendations. And this resolution must then be ratified by the governments of the member states. So the decision-making process has in fact only just begun and a definitive decision still lies in the future. A large number of sports associations have taken part in the discussion on the homepage of the ECHA and expressed their views with regard to the future of sports. And this makes perfect sense because there are already exceptions and transition periods for some product groups in the current restriction paper which currently only do not include infill granules. But there is certainly scope for this situation to change because there is a multi-stage process before the European Commission, which is currently undergoing a reshuffle, makes a decision. And this is likely to happen over the course of this year at the earliest. Anyone is free to take part in the public consultation until mid September https://echa.europa.eu/restrictions-under-consideration/-/substance-rev/22921/term
What are the specific threats at present?
First, the most significant: no artificial turf pitches are closed by an EU restriction. As such a development was widely feared and even the German interior and sports minister Horst Seehofer was moved to call for a transition period for the reconstruction of sports facilities, the European Commission issued a press release in which it reiterated its position. "The European Commission has no plans to propose a ban on artificial turf playing surfaces." it states in this document, in which the ECHA process is represented as a guidance process for a decision. Furthermore it states: "Naturally the European Commission is aware of the important role that sports facilities play in promoting physical activity, health and social integration throughout the EU. In developing its proposal the Commission will ensure that the proposed measures are effective in reducing the release of microplastic and proportionate in terms of their social impacts." This means that the entire matter is still to be discussed at length and that any solution found should not have a profoundly restrictive impact on sport. Though it should be assumed that in the long term the use in particular of SBR granules, but also of other plastic granules, will be subject to restrictions. In the short or long term they may presumably even disappear from the market. It is now a matter of objectifying the debate, presenting sufficient alternatives and ushering in a moderate transformation process that is adapted to the life cycle of artificial turf facilities. Above all a restriction on infill granules by the EU does not mean that it is no longer permitted to play on artificial turf facilities infilled in this way. The imposition of such a ban is also rather unrealistic. Because then it would also be necessary to prevent the use by consumers of cosmetic and care products with microplastic additions that they have already purchased. This is unlikely to happen, with the disappearance of such products from stores being the most likely scenario. So it can therefore be assumed that while the sale of the controversial granules will be banned, it will still be possible to use sports facilities that have already been completed. Any other measures would be difficult to control and implement. Furthermore, compulsory reconstruction undertaken as a result of restriction measures would generate so much plastic waste that the environmental impact would be significantly greater than if the facilities already built were left as they were. A transition period for which there is widespread backing is also very realistic, though even six years would be a rather short timeframe. However, the immediate compulsory closure of sports facilities isn't likely in the short term.
And there are also other questions that need to be clarified such as: How much granulate is actually released into the environment? What measures can be taken to minimise these releases on current sports facilities without carrying out major reconstruction? What is the current situation with regard to recycling products? And how can significant environmental impacts from enforced reconstruction measures be prevented? And then there is the interest of sport generally. Beyond the objectivity of the debate, the EU must also ensure that it does not fall into disrepute with millions of sports enthusiasts in the EU as a result of potentially hasty and excessive measures. After all, politics is a delicate game at the moment.
What should those responsible for artificial turf facilities do now?
Anyone responsible for a completed artificial turf sports facility which isn't being rebuilt in the near future should now simply sit tight and see what decision is taken at the end of the process. If only a ban on the sale of the granules used is imposed, it is advisable to purchase a supply for topping up in good time. Operators of such facilities should also check whether it is possible to use a "permitted" granule.
Anyone building a new sports facility now can consider the use of alternative products. Cork is an environment-friendly alternative as infill granulate and attractive in terms of its playability. However, it is relatively expensive and is not infinitely available as a material. Amid sharply rising demand, it would probably take several years to establish a reliable supply for the market. A cork oak requires between 8 and 10 years to yield usable cork. In Hamburg artificial turf sports facilities have been exclusively infilled with silica sand for ten years and it can be a good option. Furthermore, the first completely infill-free artificial turf system for football is now on the market. There are also natural and hybrid turf surfaces and …compacted soil. So there are in fact quite a few alternatives for a new facility. But this needs to be reiterated: there is no urgent requirement at present to refrain from using SBR, EPDB or TPE granules.
Alternatives in sports facility construction
As mentioned earlier, there is definitely scope to further limit and avoid the release of artificial turf granules from sports facilities. Above all, such facilities should be maintained by qualified personnel. It is important that the volume of granules used is not too great, that they are regularly spread evenly from the edge areas across the entire playing surface and that snow is quickly cleared from the facility. Special filter systems should filter out up to 98% of the granules in waste water. This would significantly limit their discharge into groundwater. Facilities that are extremely exposed to the wind could be better protected. On the edges low barriers could also prevent drifts and dispersals of the granules. There is certainly scope to invest as much effort in finding ways of avoiding releases as is currently being invested in finding creative alternative infill materials.
It is difficult to gain a clear perspective in light of the uncertain outcome of the restriction process. But what is evident, however, is that the increased political awareness of environmental and climate issues does not just reflect the growing interest of the public but is also rooted in science. Microplastic is part of the environment problem and it is certainly a welcome development that solutions to prevent plastic pollution are being sought and political decisions taken. Many things will change and lots of amenities will inevitably disappear - people must simply adjust as this is the necessary compromise with regard to the climate changes on our planet. Sport and sports facility construction will also be affected. The debate chiefly concerns the action required to achieve the goals in question and how to reconcile the needs of sport and the environment. So the need to seek new solutions is more pressing than ever. And this applies equally to scientists, manufacturers, sports enthusiasts and politicians.
Prof. Dr. Martin Thieme-Hack (Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences):
"There have already been several rounds of public discussions about artificial turf as a surface for sports facilities, agglutinated rubber granules with new rubber and possible PAH contamination in recycled rubber. In the past this has resulted in planner and builders seeking alternatives. Some have tried cork as infill or simply used sand. And new developments of surfaces that require no infill have already become established in the marketplace.
In my estimation the Fraunhofer Umsicht's assumptions for its calculations of volumes are not appropriate for Germany. The construction method which seeks to achieve force reduction exclusively through the infill is not widespread in Germany. Fraunhofer has made an assumption of 16 to 19 kg infill per m². In Germany a volume of 4 kg is the norm due to improved surface characteristics. Force reduction is generally achieved through bound elastifying layers beneath the artificial turf.
Now the ECHA has proposed banning the addition of microplastic with specific reference to the infill of artificial turf. I personally think that this regulation will come into force at the end of 2022. For how long it will then be possible to continue using existing facilities and whether there will be a transition period for new facilities is completely open. In the worst case scenario it is even possible that all facilities will have to be dismantled as soon as 2028, after a 6-year transition. Facilities under construction today would then be just nine years old.
If I had to decide today as a planner or builder, I would not choose rubber granules as infill as I think that the risk of a ban being imposed is too great. Since 2016 German construction contract procedures (VOB) - Part C: General technical specifications in construction contracts (ATV) DIN (German Institute for Standardisation) 18320 has included sand-infilled artificial turf as a standard construction method.
What gives us cause for concern today is microplastic resulting from the wear of fibres. This is not yet covered by laws or other rules but it is to be assumed that the debate is imminent. A study by Müller et. al. (Neue Landschaft 05-2019, p. 23 et seq) outlined the initial orders of magnitude in an attempt to develop a test method. This volume is presumably too high as heavily used areas are disproportionately considered. Manufacturers also report that it would be possible to produce virtually wear-free fibres if plastics of appropriate quality were used. That there are definitely differences is also illustrated by the results of the wear tests which every artificial turf system must undergo.
And here it is important that the industry shows the willingness to find quality assurance systems which can ensure a reduction in the release of microplastic from the fibres of artificial turf systems.
Another strategy for preventing the release of microplastics into the environment is the installation of filter systems which remove microplastic from water. Here it is already possible to draw on experiences from road construction. Since tyre abrasion is currently considered to be the largest source of microplastic pollution such systems will also increasingly be used in this area too."
Uwe Lübking (German Association of Towns and Municipalities):
"Germany's towns and municipalities are aware of the challenge of environmental pollution caused by (micro) plastic and so welcome the efforts to drastically reduce the release of artificially-added and virtually non-biodegradable microplastics into the environment. On the other hand, we also need to ensure that individuals, clubs and schools have a comprehensive offering of public leisure and sports facilities, in this way contributing to a healthy society. Artificial turf facilities are a vital part of sports facility infrastructure. According to the figures of the German Olympic Sports Confedaration (DOSB), around 5,000 existing facilities are likely to be affected by a ban on granules. Were they to have to close for renovation, a six-digit number of sports enthusiasts, including a large number of children and young people, would see their opportunities to pursue physical activities curtailed for an indefinite period of time. Such a ban would also see local authorities incur significant costs from reconstruction work and the switch to alternative infill materials. Many local authorities simply do not have access to this additional finance, which means that sports facilities would have to be closed. Therefore, in the event of the restriction proposal being implemented the German Olympic Sports Confederation is demanding a transition period of at least six years for plastic granules. The manufacturers of artificial turf systems are being called on to develop and make widely available alternative biodegradable and / or environmentally sustainable products.
Karsten Schütze, Uwe Kaliske (Association of German Sports Authorities):
"Artificial turf facilities are a key element of Germany's sports facility infrastructure. And without these versatile facilities the good youth and amateur work done in football in many places would not be possible. Nevertheless, associations, clubs and local authorities must also take into account the need to address the environmental challenge of granule-infilled artificial turf facilities. This is not a sustainable product due to the volumes of plastic that are released into the environment.
We now need to achieve a sound and practicable transition to artificial turf pitches without infill or infilled with alternative products. In this respect the board of the Association of German Sports Authorities supports the stance of the German Olympic Sports Confederation and the German Football Association that an adequate transition period is required which will enable clubs, associations and local authorities to continue to run football training sessions and play matches in Germany."
Christian Siegel (Deputy head of department for "urban sports", German Olympic Sports Confederation)
"The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) has social responsibility for the conservation and sustainable use of our natural resources. Therefore, in tandem with the German Football Association (DFB), it endeavours to ensure that sports facilities are operated with the maximum possible respect for the environment.
Both organisations are aware that sport can play a part in reducing environmental pollution by (micro-) plastic. Accordingly, the DOSB and DFB are at present investigating the possible impacts of artificial turf facilities on the environment as a matter of urgency. To this end, the DOSB has formed a working group with members from sports associations and academia. The working group agreed that an inventory must be undertaken and information provided as quickly as possible about simple actionable measures for sports clubs and local authorities which can significantly reduce the release of plastic into the environment without curtailing opportunities to pursue sport. In addition to the requirement for such action, the working group established the urgent need for further scientific expertise on the practical suitability of alternative organic infill materials and for multi-sport artificial turf surfaces which can also be infill material-free.
(…)In the event of such a ban coming into force, public-welfare oriented sport calls for a transition period of at least six years, as proposed by the ECHA for other affected products.
This transition period is necessary to afford the hefty investment in the renovation of the more than 6,000 artificial turf playing surfaces of various ages owned by local authorities and sports clubs in Germany and to maintain the sports activity at the sports facilities unaffected.
Sports clubs depend on their sports facilities to continue to fulfil their various socio-political and social duties. Therefore the DOSB and DFB are actively taking part in the current public EU consultation process in the interest of their members and environmental conservation."
Andreas Stump (the Federal Association for Garden, Landscape and Sportsground Construction):
"In essence what needs to be said is that the debate on this topic has rather taken on a life of its own and that there is already talk of bans and restrictions even though the responsible institutions have yet to conclude their deliberations. In summary: In accordance with the requirements of the REACH procedure for the restriction of substances that may pose a threat to the environment or health, the European Commission has asked the ECHA to conduct an evaluation of scientific findings so that regulatory measures can be implemented at EU levels to deal with intentionally added microplastics in products of all kinds. Based on this evaluation, the European Commission may impose a ban or a restriction in 2020. It must also be pointed out that in Germany under the DIN 18035-7 standard artificial turf facilities built are required to have two thirds less infill granulate per square metre than in other European countries."
Tobias Müller (Polytan GmbH):
"We are following with great interest the current intensive debate in Germany about rubber granules on artificial turf sports facilities. Modern granules largely consist of natural substances such as chalk and hemp. An infill of sand and rubber granules provides the optimum playing qualities and the best protection for users. These factors are also sure to be taken into account by the ECHA in its deliberations before it gives its recommendation to the European Commission. Alternatively, we also offer sand and cork infill. In recent years we have further reduced the amount of granule infill (recently to under two kilometres per square metre) and minimised its release. We are also researching alternatives to rubber granules and efficient filter systems which will almost completely eliminate infill release. We are confident that no artificial turf facility will have to be closed because of its infill."
Josep Roger (CEO Gezolan AG):
"Microplastic is one of the key ecological concerns of our age. However, the current debate about a potential ban on plastic infill granules lacks the appropriate objectivity and sense of proportion.
Modern, specially manufactured infill granules are not made purely from plastics but typically contain almost 70% natural and mineral filler. Systems without infill, natural infill granules and natural turf do not offer the same sport and functional properties as infilled systems, cannot be used year-round and in our view do not represent viable alternatives that would enable local authorities and clubs to continue to play a key role in helping people remain healthy through the pursuit of sport.
GEZOLAN AG is convinced that its current importance is unjustly being taken into account in the overall consideration of artificial turf. And while a ban on rubber artificial turf infill granules would not solve the general problem of microplastic, what it probably would do is significantly reduce the opportunity and the motivation to pursue sports."
Sascha Seifert (R&D Manager Melos GmbH):
"The figures circulating in the market on microplastic pollution caused by artificial turf facilities are not valid since they fail to take into account the advanced construction method (with an elastic layer and 60% less material used) and the actual release has not been scientifically verified. This uncertainty has prompted some local authorities to switch to sand or cork infill or even to dispense with artificial turf facilities – to the detriment of sports enthusiasts. Sand is a step back to the first generation of artificial turf. Cork, in turn, is only available in insufficient quantities and has significant disadvantages. Artificial turf facilities infilled with EPDM rubber (virgin material), on the other hand, have demonstrated their stability and suitability for sport over many years. An EU ban on plastic infill granules would cause significant harm to towns, local authorities, clubs and sports enthusiasts in the form of financial overload, increased susceptibility to injury and poorer playing characteristics and usability. Nevertheless, Melos is already working on sustainable solutions with a view to successfully expanding its portfolio of proven plastic infill solutions!"
Bernd Schnabel (landscape architect, publicly appointed and sworn expert sports facility construction):
"I think it is essentially correct to move away from rubber granule infills on artificial turf facilities, even though the currently discussed amount of microplastic released annually by artificial turf facilities into the environment is likely to be a significant overestimate.
For many years manufacturers have been trying to develop systems which offer appropriate conditions for playing football exclusively with sand or even no infill whatsoever. So far the results have been more or less successful. I hope that the imminent ban will provide further impetus for this development as the manufacturers will be obliged to work intensively on the further development of such systems.
The inclusion of a transition period in the ban proposal would have been helpful to avoid the present panic among operators and contractors which is causing considerable turbulence in current award processes and building operations.
I assume that the EU will enact the ban on rubber granules. However, it is hard to envisage a ban which also requires the immediate removal of existing artificial turf infills. For logistical reasons alone such a requirement would be impracticable. In my opinion transition periods are absolutely essential. These should take into account the usual 10- to 15-year lifespan of an artificial turf system. My fear, however, is that these periods could be significantly shorter.
It is also an issue that will have to continue to be addressed after a ban as systems without rubber granules also generate microplastic as a result of fibre abrasion."
Rolf Haas (vice chair International Association for Sports and Leisure Facilities, Germany, head of outdoor department):
"As the International Association for Sports and Leisure Facilities Germany, we understand the public debate, accept the problem and are working on specific solutions. Overall, we would point out that the situation in Germany differs significantly from that in other European countries and that artificial turf in this country is verifiably infilled with far less microplastic than in other European countries. We endorse the removal of microplastic as an infill material from artificial turf in the foreseeable future and the complete elimination of microplastic in the future. Therefore we are striving to develop an artificial turf that is completely granule-free and have taken and are supporting measures which reduce the release of granules on current artificial turf facilities to an absolute minimum. Finally, should a ban on microplastic at European level be enacted, we expect transition periods of at least six years for the industry to research and develop appropriate alternatives and solutions."
Image: © Dziurek /Shutterstock.com