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Climate-friendly and environmentally-sensitive synthetic sports turf – requirements and opportunities in development
Last year's discussions about the environmental sustainability of synthetic sports turf surfaces undoubtedly remain fresh in many people's minds. And it was not the synthetic turf itself that was the basis for the European Commission's planned measures but the infill granules and their possible emission into the environment as microplastic. Although no final decision has yet been reached on the future of synthetic granules, industry, associations, state governments and local authorities have already made preparations for a possible ban. And this entails not only coming up with and using alternatives for infill, but also developing more climate-friendly, environmentally-sensitive and sustainable synthetic turf for sports.
Another effect of the discussion about the emission of microplastics is that environmentalists are focusing more closely on synthetic sports turf itself. In the current debate about the expansion of the training facility of 1.FC Köln, involving the construction of several new synthetic turf pitches on Cologne's greenbelt, positions have become almost entrenched. Notice has been given of legal actions. In addition to protection of the city's greenbelt, the other issues under scrutiny here include synthetic turf as a cause of environmental pollution. The club has given assurances that the project will be carried out in an environmentally- and climate-sensitive manner. But how environmentally- and climate-friendly can a synthetic turf sports surface be?
In recent years synthetic turf pitches have become standard in football pitch construction in urban environments in particular. For many heavily-used sports facilities synthetic turf surfaces have become almost indispensable due to their weather-resistant properties and the many hours for which they can potentially be used. In terms of quality and suitability for sport a modern synthetic turf pitch is close rival for its model - the natural turf pitch. And as it is also more durable and easier to maintain, it is often the number one and only choice. Closures of synthetic turf facilities because of bad weather or for renovation reasons are extremely rare. It is only when it comes to sustainability and environmental and climate protection that synthetic sports turf still falls short. But it should also be pointed out that a natural turf pitch hardly ticks every box in this regard either. While on a meadow life abounds, on a natural turf pitch all living beings apart from the turf itself and its users are unwelcome per se. Fertilisers and pesticides are frequently used and pollute both the environment and groundwater. From an ecological standpoint the natural turf sports facility undoubtedly has a number of advantages, but it is also hardly a nature reserve.
Until now microplastic has been the main criticism with regard to the environmental sustainability of synthetic sports turf and, as mentioned earlier, this is largely because of the infill granules used. Many federal states have already stopped funding the installation of synthetic turf pitches with plastic infill granules without being legally required to do so. This has since resulted principally in the installation of synthetic turf pitches with alternative fillings such as quartz sand, cork or ground olive stones. In addition, the industry has also developed unfilled synthetic turf surfaces for sports facilities. A synthetic turf football pitch without plastic infill granules is a simple solution. Firstly, it is a clean solution for the environment, since the absence of granules means there is no emission of microplastics, and secondly it is advantageous for players as no infill gets lodged in their trainers and clothing. Existing facilities can also be equipped with suitable filters in their drainage systems which can prevent the emission of microplastic elements into the groundwater and environment. Although it is not yet clear whether and when the EU will ban the use of infill granules, most current construction projects are going ahead without their use.
However, it is not just the emission of microplastic that is an issue, with ecological sustainability set to increasingly become a key concern over the coming years. It is widely known that synthetic turf surfaces generally have a maximum 15-year lifespan, while some need to be replaced much sooner. And the typical reason for this is wear and tear. The old synthetic turf surface will then be disassembled and disposed of. In most cases this entails incineration or permanent storage at a waste site. Naturally, neither is an environment- or climate-friendly option. Although there are an increasing range of options for the recycling of old synthetic turf pitches, not all are truly sustainable.
However, new political requirements mean that this situation might now change: At the start of its term of office the new European Commission launched the European Green Deal. This aims to make the continent carbon-neutral by 2050 and sets far more ambitious targets than previously envisaged for the reduction of CO² emissions. Part of the Green Deal is a new sustainable action plan for the circular economy. In this plan the European Commission states that it will propose legislation on Sustainable Product Policy "to ensure that products placed on the EU market are designed to last longer, are easier to reuse, repair and recycle, and incorporate as much as possible recycled material instead of primary raw material. Single-use will be restricted, premature obsolescence tackled, and the destruction of unsold durable goods banned." (source: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/de/IP_20_420). The action plan also states that there will be new mandatory requirements for recycled content and special attention on microplastics as well as biobased and biodegradable plastics, and that there will be a focus on avoiding waste altogether and transforming it into high-quality secondary resources. This will also have an impact on the requirements of synthetic sports turf.
On the one hand, there will be a focus on the durability of synthetic turf surfaces for sports, which will need to be even more robust and weather-proof. This means not only that there will be less microplastic abrasion but that significantly less waste will be produced over time due to longer life cycles. In addition, it will no longer be allowed to simply dispose of old synthetic turf surfaces - instead, they will have to be reintroduced as intact as possible to the circular economy. When exchanging a worn-out synthetic turf pitch all system components must be recycled. This means sand will be used in the construction industry, while the infill granules will be used to manufacture fall protection mats or new tires. The synthetic turf itself will be subjected to a special process and converted into plastic granules, which can then be used to manufacture new plastic components. Furthermore, this industrial process consumes minimal resources, does not have an environmental or climate impact and delivers an end product that meets the same requirements as the synthetic turf from which it has been produced.
So in future synthetic sports turf will need to satisfy numerous further standards in terms of quality and production. This is a considerable challenge in terms of research and technical development, requiring creativity and research at many levels. The discussions over the last year have been fruitful and there are now, for example, synthetic sports turfs based on renewable raw materials and other natural components. The latest developments which have resulted in the production of synthetic turf from old plastic are especially promising. In this chemical recycling process old plastic is converted into oil by means of pyrolysis and then used to manufacture new synthetic turf fibres. And development will continue for it is not a matter of banning synthetic sports turf, but of improving it in such a way that, in addition to its known advantages, it meets high standards in terms of sustainability and environmental and climate impact.