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Disposal of artificial turf systems – recycling rather than incineration

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© Mikhail Olykainen/shutterstock.com

Artificial turf pitches have elevated amateur football in Germany and Europe to a new level in recent years. Long gone in many places are the times of pitches being closed due to adverse weather conditions, of scrappy football played on muddy ash pitches and of problems complying with the upper limit of hours of use. So high is the quality of football now played on synthetic turf pitches that the initial criticism (too slippery, danger of suffering burns, etc.) has virtually been silenced. Heavily-used pitches in cities in particular benefit from a synthetic surface, which enables the facility to be used almost without time limits and almost regardless of weather conditions.

The era of synthetic turf in amateur football has quickly became established, with the number of pitches in Germany having grown to more than 5000 in recent years. However, some cracks have started to appear in this success story because the environmental sustainability of the new pitches is creating new problems which are currently even being discussed by the general public. And there is a particular focus on the themes of microplastic and PAHs in synthetic turf granules (S&L reported on this topic in its 05/2018 and 04/2019 issues). Another issue which is also increasingly gaining attention is the disposal of synthetic turf systems. A newly-installed synthetic turf surface typically has a lifespan of around 15 years if correctly maintained. It must then be replaced, which means that 7000 – 8000 m² of old synthetic turf need to be disposed of. Along with its infill. Hitherto this has been done using traditional waste disposal methods – i.e. by incineration or landfilling. Neither method is environment-friendly and there is no point even mentioning sustainability.

At a certain point in the future the rapid growth in synthetic turf pitches in the EU will also result in rapid growth in the number of synthetic turf systems to be disposed of. The amount of mixed waste (in the EU) caused by old synthetic turf pitches is already estimated at around 600,000 tonnes per year and this volume is increasing. Each synthetic turf facility creates between 200 and 250 tonnes of waste. Assuming that the 5000 synthetic turf pitches in Germany must all be replaced within the next 15 years, this means over one million tonnes of waste would be created in this country alone. And this figure could be even greater as it is currently uncertain whether EU measures in relation to synthetic turf granules will require early refurbishments of facilities to be undertaken. Then action to protect the environment could result in a negative environmental impact. This would certainly not be the intention of legislators.

However, there is now a viable alternative to the burning and landfilling of synthetic turf pitches – and that is recycling. Various specialist firms are now offering their services in this area and can also compete with waste incineration facilities in cost terms. Most of these companies have developed special facilities which separate the different components of synthetic turf surfaces, shred the material and then largely return the reclaimed secondary raw materials to the economic system. The materials are often roughly separated from one another on-site using special machinery, with the companies then completing the job at their facilities. The costs for the sports facility operator depend on the supplier and the quality of the old surface and are usually between € 1.50 and € 4 per m², as the recycling companies can resell most of the reclaimed raw materials. Moreover, several of these firms are now vying with synthetic turf manufacturers by supplying their own products made from recycled synthetic turf. So as we can see it is possible to directly reuse the material as a component of new synthetic turf systems.

While this marked increase in recycling options is as heartening as it is necessary, it is now also essential that they are extensive and widely available. Society's burgeoning environmental and climate awareness means the issue of synthetic turf recycling is moving centre stage, with many clients now insisting on the appropriate environmentally-sensitive removal of old surfaces. However, there is no statutory basis at present in Germany, which means that a controlled "environmentally-compatible" recycling process is not yet possible and is therefore also not mandatory. Whether this situation will change in the near future is uncertain. So at the moment it is down to the environmental awareness of the individual synthetic turf operator whether they opt to recycle a synthetic turf surface or to dispose of it in another way. 

And environmentally-aware contractors should also be aware that the multi-million-euro disposal business attracts more than its fair share of black sheep. If the construction company promises the client that the old surface will be recycled, the latter often has no way of verifying whether this actually happens. Although lots of specialist firms do actually offer certificates, the contractor must apply directly to the company for these. If there are several intermediaries this has a significant impact on transparency. So it is essential that the contractor pays heed to where and how the old synthetic turf is disposed of and has access to the corresponding certificates. Otherwise there is a risk that the synthetic turf will indeed end up being incinerated or, in a worst-case scenario, illegally landfilled overseas. While such occurrences are the exception, attention nevertheless needs to be drawn to the possibility.

The pressure on synthetic turf manufacturers and sports facility operators as a result of increasing environmental awareness is growing constantly. And at the same time synthetic turf has become indispensable as a sports facility surface in many places. This means it is even more important to address the issue of synthetic turf reputation as being environmentally harmful by significantly reducing the impacts caused by its quality, construction and disposal and – to the largest possible extent – offering synthetic turf systems which are climate-neutral and sustainable. While synthetic turf will never be able to compete with a natural product in this regard, important steps in the right direction can nevertheless be taken.

The issue of disposal, incidentally, does not just affect synthetic turf surfaces. Athletics tracks and lots of fall protection systems made from plastic must also be disposed of at some point. And although they tend to have significantly longer lifespans than synthetic turf pitches, the issue of disposal is exactly the same. So once again creative thinking and innovative recycling concepts are required. For the benefit of both sport and the environment.

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