Sustainability & Recycling of Synthetic Turf Systems : the Future

Public awareness of the damage caused by plastic waste in the environment means that manufacturing strategies that do not reduce the impact of production on the environment will soon become unacceptable. Of course, synthetic turf systems and shock pads will fall under the broad banner of plastic waste and now is the time for the industry to be proactive in embracing sustainability while working towards a more circular manufacturing process.

Reducing the industry’s reliance on new plastic materials is a priority. Reusing recycled plastics derived from old turf or other plastic waste, and eventually using a higher percentage of recycled content in new turf and shock pad products, will reduce the industry’s overall carbon footprint.

We are operating in an industry under pressure right now. Several key issues, such as adverse publicity about potentially harmful chemicals in rubber crumb infill and an ongoing microplastic debate, are just two of the issues. Sustainability and recycling are now hot topics for all businesses involved in this sector.

At the moment, recycling options are not mainstream or available on every continent. As an example, most countries in Europe with the highest volume of artificial turf pitches do not have access to a recycling plant.

We have seen many installers offering repurposing or reuse of materials as a solution, but this is just kicking the can down the road when, ultimately, the old turf becomes someone else’s waste to deal with. Old turf is generally end-of-use, so it does not get reused for sport. Its infill can be repurposed and even recycled successfully if cleaned, but it is perceived as low-value. These are just some of the barriers that are beginning to surface.

Targeted funding is a priority to incentivise private companies to set up recycling plants. More importantly, the funding of recycling in public procurement is fundamental to providing a pipeline for plants specialising in turning waste into valuable resources. These could be re-used in sports surfacing and, better still, in a push toward a closed-loop manufacturing process which would be the ultimate goal.

Legislation in waste management is strong, just ask one of those brave companies that have tried to set up recycling plants in Europe. Unfortunately, legislation to force owners to recycle is very weak. Legislators need to be informed so that the correct legislation is applied. The industry needs to lobby and educate in this regard, otherwise the wrong kind of legislation will be applied.

Consumers are becoming savvier all the time. They will put their dollars into what they consider to be sustainable products. The pressure is applied from many sections of society, which will only get stronger, even in the short-term. The industry needs to get ahead of this. There are some positive signs it is responding to pressure, particularly in robust procurement processes.

Education is a priority, and trade organisations are working hard to get the message out that sustainability and recycling should be at the core of your business very soon or you will get left behind – or worse still – go out of business.

The cost of recycling is a barrier to it. With most things, it rings true that the higher the volume, the lower the cost. So we need key decision-makers and industry role models to push the recycling philosophy.

The location of recycling plants is not conducive to make installers use them as a viable solution to deal with end-of-use turf systems. Transporting filled, heavily rolled up turf thousands of miles is not good for the environment. Carbon emissions to mobilise the turf can be regarded as counterintuitive, so there is a necessity to get more local recycling plants up and running.

Mixed materials and contamination make recycling the plastic component difficult and costly, and the waste product unattractive to plastic recyclers.

In July 2020, we conducted a month-long survey on recycling in the artificial turf industry. Comprising of 32 questions, we had 118 people complete the survey, with at total of 3776 questions answered between them.

We aimed to identify current limiting factors, such as the availability of recycling plants, the general understanding of recycling, and the available codes of practice to follow. We are sharing this information so we can tackle it as an industry, in a hope we can harness a more environmentally-friendly approach. As an industry, we can do better to educate all stakeholders, improve clarity on terminology, and try to encourage more codes of practice.

Consisting of 12 ‘role’ categories (Q1) we received data on all 8 territorial options (Q2), with Europe having the highest feedback at 43%.

76% of our participants were a member of an association or society in the turf industry (Q3).

Only 33% are aware of codes of practice and alarmingly 29% are members of bodies with no codes (Q4). 56% of participants follow a code of practice (Q5)

The key barriers (Q6) to recycling were Availability of plant, ‘Lack of a clear end-of-use for the materials to be recycled’, ‘No clear reward for recycling (such as in quality-scoring or in winning projects)’, ‘Cost’, ‘Legislation’, and ‘Lack of understanding’.

61% Agree in some form there should be a tax allowance to help offset the expense of recycling (Q7) with 80% selecting recycled material as ‘Average Acceptable’ to ‘Good’. (Q8).

60% of participants are dissatisfied to some degree with the availability of recycling options (Q10). Additionally, 60% of participants are presently dissatisfied to some degree with the level of recycling knowledge within the industry (Q11), with 70% dissatisfied to some degree with the guidance provided by sports global and national governing bodies. (Q12)

62% of participants are dissatisfied to some degree with the quality scoring rating during tender evaluation assigned to recycling. (Q13)

55% of participants end of use process is to reuse and 51% have also selected recycle. (Q14) 91% of participants are active in re-use to recycle to some degree, with 26% operating between 75 – 100% of reuse or recycling practices (Q15). 62% of participants are recycling artificial grass with 47% recycling infill materials. (Q16)

More encouragingly 61% are active in researching and developing their recycling process (Q17)

29% of participants are dissatisfied to some degree that turf is not being managed from site as agreed. (Q18) with 48% having no system in place to check. (Q20).

Local to countrywide transportation of turf to recycling facilities is acceptable. (Q19)

54% of participants have recently read articles in our industry on recycling. (Q22) with 51% dissatisfied to some degree and only 4% satisfied to some degree. (Q24)

Only 34% of participants have recycling plants locally available. (Q25)

86% would you support buying re-used/recycled infill and synthetic materials for new sports facilities. (Q27). 60% believe it is acceptable to pay more for recycled turf to some degree whereas 40% believe it is not. (Q29). 72% believe it is acceptable to pay more to some degree whereas 28% believe it is for existing site materials to be removed and recycled. (Q30)

51% of participants believe the field owner is responsible for funding recycling (Q31) and 57% believe the government plays the most significant role in changing the mindset towards recycling. (Q32)

It would be suggestive that there is a clear terminology issue in our industry between repurposing and recycling.

It is a fact that investment groups, private equity companies, and banks are now scrutinising where they invest their money. If your company is not on a sustainable footing with a good track record of reducing its carbon footprint, it might not be able to attract investment or it can even lose investors. Many corporations are actively working toward a neutral carbon footprint by 2030.

Synthetic turf has taken a beating in the recent past. Misleading media stories about the alleged harmful effects of materials in tire-derived infill materials hurt the industry. In Europe, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has firmly advocated banning the same infill materials due to a plastics strategy targeting microplastics.

The industry is a hotbed of innovation and we are seeing some great innovation from larger suppliers, and contributions in a smaller context as well. The culture and philosophy of our industry are changing and we need to move quicker.

New materials will become available once they complete their R & D journey through to independent certification, We see many innovative infills that are organic and not classified as microplastics. Turf can be constructed of fewer components that can be separated easier when recycled.

New plastics which are more readily biodegradable will also become available.

Development of organic-based materials will become the norm, although the challenge will always be to prove durability and life expectancy, not only for safety but for performance, too. Many materials are currently in the pilot stage to prove long term stability under varying climatic conditions — this is not a quick process.

New processes will become more economical.

If we crack it, then recycling mixed plastic will be easy for everyone. Our industry could be an example of how to find solutions to recycling problems, which could benefit society in general.

Where there is muck there is brass. It is a fact that waste management companies rarely suffer financial hardship and there are significant opportunities for many sectors in our industry to make money from dealing with its waste.

The key is to achieve high value from the synthetic turf system. Not easy as the turf component only makes up 11% of a typical 3G pitch. The plastic materials are however valuable and it is by them being mixed that realising that value is difficult. Infill materials can be cleaned and following some testing can be resold within the industry in a truly circular fashion or downcycled to other applications.

Innovation will solve some of these aforementioned problems and the brightest leaders in the industry will succeed. This will result in less resource-hungry manufacturing, less energy, less carbon – setting a standard for the future of the industry.

Manufacturers should look at their supply chains and procure in as far as possible more sustainable constituents for the manufacture of their turf and shock pad systems. Further, they should identify what is in their product so recyclers have sight of what they are trying to recycle.

An efficient waste collection handling system needs to be set up. Traceability is paramount. The waste must remain ‘locally’ and be dealt with in the Country.

Technology for separating and cleaning fibres, sand, and rubber crumb exists. It needs to be applied to this sector.

This is an ‘all stakeholder’ problem. Shifting it to the funder, owner, installer will result in little or no recycling.

Public and private funding should be available for R&D in all sectors which would lead to a circular economy.

Designers and consultants should specify and select products by using sustainability as a matrix in their tender evaluation process and they should insist on recycling end of use turf systems in refurbishment projects.

Owners should be made more aware of what happens to the end of use turf systems, who is handling it, where is it going to be dealt with, is it being recycled and not illegally dumped.

All these things are achievable now.

The turf system does not emit microplastic particles into the environment.

Due to extended producer liability, you no longer own the turf you just ‘hire’ it for the duration of its use, then the producer takes the old one away to be recycled and you get a new one.

The new one you get is produced in a closed-loop circular manufacturing process – where the waste from the old turf is recycled into new products mainly used in sports!

The product is cradle to cradle.

The new turf comes with fully biodegradable infills that go back into the environment in a neutral fashion.

If increased funding is required to take a step towards a more sustainable design and product, then whom in the process should provide the additional finance and should there be new government guidelines to enforce it? It will most likely be led by industry entreprenuers, however the investment level is huge.

We are currently in a period of optional additional costs for good practice versus competitive tendering, and a race to the bottom. Who will take the leap in quality scoring for recyclable, sustainable designs and products seriously enough to force change? Consultants can always include this as best practice, however, we should embrace this as an industry and push legislation as compulsory on design and installation.

It is certainly not impossible to follow a model of classification, such as what we see for fire classification, but should global governing bodies adopt this and start to incorporate it in their product reports? Would this filter down to be adopted by national governing bodies? Having a consistent approach to this would create less confusion.

We enter a period where there is a high number of refurbishments versus new builds. This is related to a high volume of fields being installed around 6 – 10 years ago. So hiring your pitch is a very feasibility proposal.

This ratio will only increase due to countries hitting their threshold of target pitch numbers and then more resurface projects compared to completed new builds.

So how do we go forward? We need a concerted effort from all high-level stakeholders to lobby the governments with the correct information to encourage legislation rather than best practice. This includes global governing bodies, national governing bodies, associations, and leading high volume frameworks that represent our industry.

This does work in tandem with continental legislation and must remain agile to change, for example, we currently await some industry-changing decisions on microplastics and we believe this is only the beginning of the evolution to greener sports surfaces

Article written by Eric O’Donnell, Managing Director at Sports Labs
With survey analysis by Niall MacPhee