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12.10.2021 - Ausgabe: 5/2021

Sports surfaces – options for the future

© contrastwerkstatt / stock.adobe.com

Current political developments, especially with regard to planned environmental and climate protection requirements, have recently unsettled many key players in the planning and operation of sports facilities. New issues have been raised with regard to sports surfaces, especially when it comes to new construction or resurfacing. On the one hand, it is about climate and environmental friendliness as well as the avoidance of microplastics, but on the other hand, it is also about creating a modern and appealing sports facility that allows athletes to practise their sports safely and appropriately. Creating a sustainable and future-oriented sports facility requires careful consideration of a number of factors during the planning phase.

Granules used as infill material in artificial turf pitches  

Polymer granules used as infill material in artificial turf pitches, in particular, have been the subject of debate for some years now. A controversial scientific publication in Germany as well as the process driven by the European Commission and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to avoid the release of microplastics into the environment have already led to far-reaching consequences in this country. Although the process within the EU has not been completed yet, all German federal states are already no longer granting public subsidies for the new construction of artificial turf pitches containing polymer granulate infill material.  And since very few sports fields can be built without these subsidies, this has de facto led to the end of the construction of sports fields with polymer granules used as infill, especially at municipal level. 

It is, of course, undisputed that some of the granules are released from the sports field into the environment over time. However, detailed studies on the extent and quantity are currently only available from Scandinavia. Nevertheless, it is likely that the placing on the market of polymer granules for use as infill material in artificial turf pitches will be banned in the near future. A planned short transition period of a few years – which has yet to be finalized – will also affect existing artificial turf pitches. The only viable alternative option to a ban at present is to retrofit the drainage system with appropriate filters to collect the microplastics.  

The industry has long since taken action, however, and new infilled artificial turf pitches now contain more environmentally friendly granules, e.g. from cork or olive pits. In some cases, granules are simply no longer used and only silica sand is used, which is usually used as infill underneath surface granules. All of these alternatives will still be possible in the future without any restrictions and are therefore becoming more and more popular. 

Non-infill artificial turf  

What has been standard on hockey pitches for many years could also be increasingly used on other artificial turf pitches in the future due to the problems surrounding plastic granulate infill described above. Some artificial turf manufacturers have responded to the latest developments and the number of non-infill surfaces, which are also well suited for sports such as football or rugby, will increase in the near future. It is quite challenging to develop a non-infill artificial turf system that will subsequently have almost the same playing quality characteristics as infill products. It remains to be seen whether the non-infill systems will ultimately prevail over those with natural granulate infill or just sand infill. At present, infilled systems are still very much in use in new construction.  

Circular economy  

Another much-debated issue in sports field construction is currently the disposal of old sports field surfaces. It is not about microplastics, but about the tonnes of plastic waste generated in the process. In the past, old artificial turf pitches in particular were often either incinerated or left to rot as waste exports in landfills in non-European countries.  Meanwhile, however, many leading manufacturers of artificial turf systems have taken appropriate action and have developed ways to extensively recycle end-of-life artificial turf fields. The recyclate obtained from this is often used in other areas of sports field construction, for example in substructures or in sports surfaces. 

Current developments in the Closed Substance Cycle Waste Management Act already require some industrial sectors to have mandatory recyclate use quotas, i.e. new products must be made from recycled plastic to a certain extent.  This applies, for example, to the production of disposable plastic bottles. Although there is currently no such legal obligation to use recycled material in the manufacture of sports surfaces, some manufacturers have already taken action and developed appropriate options. In addition to possible legal provisions, it is to be expected that in future recycled-content products will increasingly be given preference in individual tenders. There are now even suppliers of artificial turf systems made with fibers from 100% recycled plastic waste. 

Outdoor sports surfaces  

Even though the focus is largely on artificial turf, it should be noted that there are in fact many sports facilities featuring outdoor sports surfaces. Over the past decades, they have replaced the previously common compacted granular surfaces – much to the delight of athletes. Today, many products already have a high percentage of recycled plastic content. If the product is of adequate quality, sustainability is guaranteed, and if it is highly abrasion-resistant on top of that, fewer microplastics are produced.  

It is expected that digital technology will increasingly be implemented in sports surfaces in the future. Even now it is possible, for example, to have athletic running tracks with integrated timing systems installed. Some indoor multi-purpose sports floors feature digital surfaces that allow for a variety of sports to be practised. Something like this is also feasible for outdoor applications. For many outdoor sports facilities, multifunctionality in particular is becoming an increasingly important factor. Facilities that are designed for only one sport provide less flexibility, and as open spaces are becoming increasingly scarce, especially in cities, people are starting to rethink their approach. In addition to being sustainable and suitable for many types of sport, safety is of course one of the most important criteria for sports floors. This should not only be ensured, but also regularly checked in existing facilities.

Overall, the requirements for sports surfaces have increased considerably in recent years and will continue to do so in the future. Climate change and growing environmental awareness will bring the need for environmental and climate compatibility and sustainability more and more into focus. However, a wide variety of sports and digitisation are also key factors at present. 






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