Taking the lead

ESTC DG Stefan Diderich with Eric O'Donnell - Sports Labs

Scotland is tackling microplastics pollution head-on and has invited the ESTC to join them in finding solutions to deal with this issue. They couldn’t have wished for a better partner.

Pollution from microplastics affects everybody and everything but has a complicated nature that needs to be treated delicately in order to be solved correctly. According to Scientists at Oxford University, close to 5 billion microplastic particles pollute the world’s oceans’ surface making coastal countries in particular vulnerable to pollution. With a coastline measuring 11,000 kilometres in length, Scotland has been on the receiving end of (plastic) waste transported in currents and drifts for decades. A recent clean-up for research purposes at 16 coastal spots saw over 20,000 pieces of plastic being retrieved, an incredible number considering the mere 48m2 that was cleaned. However, sewage related debris like wet wipes, cotton or bud stems that are found in the Scottish ecosystem all come from people flushing plastic down the toilet. It made the Scottish government realise that the issued needed to be addressed urgently, hence its decision to assemble a forum in late June to help them to draft a framework for implementing adequate measures.

ESTC’s Director General, Stefan Diderich represented the synthetic turf industry from the European, Middle Eastern and African region. ‘Participating in such a debate is the best way to prevent the whole microplastics issue becoming of Loch Ness Monster-sized proportion,’ he says while referring to a monster that has never really been identified nor measured. ‘Plastics and microplastics without any real purpose are a major concern. However, the rubber or plastic infill used in synthetic turf fields form an integral part of the synthetic turf system. They are vital to ensuring a lasting, safe and quality surface for sports and leisure activities. As long as these materials remain within the system they cannot be considered a concern in terms of microplastics pollution. The issue that needs to be dealt with is ensuring that those granules don’t leave the field and enter the environment.’

Numerous solutions

There are numerous solutions to ensuring that the rubber or plastic remains in the field. ‘Buyers of synthetic turf fields have options like kick-boards or other barriers that will prevent the granules from leaving the field while options like brushes, walk-off mats and extended paving around the field can also prevent the granules from going AWOL. Many of these solutions have already proven to be very effective. All it takes is for buyers of a synthetic turf field to accept that these solutions require an increased budget,’ Diderich continues. He points out that the ESTC is actively assisting the European Technical Committee on sports surfaces in drafting a document to create awareness amongst field designers, venue owners, installation companies and those maintaining long pile synthetic turf sports fields about measure to keep the infill inside the field. Budget for these measures doesn’t necessarily have to be excessive. Proper planning and oversight can help to keep it limited. ‘Nowadays, Dutch municipalities expect installing companies to first explain how they will remove and recycle the synthetic turf field as part of the tender process for an installation project. This to ensure that, in the process, no infill will be able to get out of the system. For the city of Amsterdam it has become the norm to wrap the old field in biodegradable plastic before it is loaded onto trucks that remove the old field off-site before they ship it to the recycling company.’ Utrecht municipality even encourages installing companies to recycle old synthetic turf carpets to produce kickboards that can be used to keep infill inside newly installed fields.

One of the partners the ESTC closely works together with in sharing its knowledge is the British Trade Association, the Sports and Play Construction Association (SAPCA). ‘We promote collaboration and innovation to help ensure successful projects for sports and leisure use,’ says SAPCA Project Manager Colin Corline. The organisation’s goal in ‘Building an Active Nation’ is to ensure that every project meets the customer’s expectations, and is designed, built and maintained to last, whilst delivering excellent value for money. SAPCA and the ESTC have joined hands to assist the Scottish government in an ocean pollution initiative. ‘With the debate in Scotland directly affecting our members it is important for us to explain what can be done to tackle the issue locally and to explain to our members what it is the Scottish government intends to do.’

Contributing to a greater cause

The ESTC recently approved the first set of tools and documentation regarding the microplastics issue and how the industry can help to manage it, for distribution amongst its members. The information was also shared with Fidra, a Scottish environmental charity organisation. With feedback provided by ESTC members, we finalised our best practice guidelines outlining simple ways to reduce your microplastic footprint, with different versions tailored for designers and procurement, owners and maintenance staff, and users,’ says Fidra’s Madeleine Berg. She has been delighted by the proactive and open discussions she already has had with the synthetic turf industry through the ESTC. ‘Since the start of the project of addressing microplastics issues within the synthetic turf industry, we have been impressed by the willingness shown by organisations and companies to take the lead in tackling the problem, particularly within the ESTC network. Several companies took the time to review our draft guidelines, which helped to make suggestions more robust. We encourage ESTC to continue leading the way on this issue, helping to ensure best practice is put in place across new and existing pitches to reduce microplastic loss. This way we can increase access to safe play and training areas while minimising impact on the environment.’

Educating the world, informing the industry

Berg points out that Fidra is always looking for more input and feedback on their documentation. She mentions pitch architects and designers specifically as an industry group that is still ‘missing’. These are the same professionals and industries Stefan Diderich is trying to convince to join the ESTC. ‘These professionals are a vital link between buyers of synthetic turf and the synthetic turf industry yet they miss out on valid information,’ he says. ‘It is very unfortunate that is has largely gone unnoticed that the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) uses incorrect information for its proposed ban on intentionally added plastics in synthetic turf systems. This is something the ESTC is passionately trying to rectify and it requires all stakeholders to educate and remind buyers of synthetic turf fields about their role to keep the possibility of microplastics pollution at a minimum.’ According to ECHA synthetic turf fields tend to lose a large amount of infill every year. ‘I beg to differ as the latest and well-engineered third generation synthetic turf systems require much less infill to perform compared to the fields that were introduced at the turn of the century. It is incorrect to believe that if one system design has an issue, this applies to all the synthetic turf fields that are out there. As the latest synthetic turf innovations use performance infill on a performance layer, these systems require 60% less infill. The infill for these systems also has a lesser tendency to compact. That means that possible contribution to the microplastics issue by modern synthetic turf systems is very limited, if it exists at all.’

Ahead of other industries

The ESTC’s key message to the Scottish government was to invest in quality synthetic turf systems and improve the maintenance of these fields. Earlier this year Cameron Watt, the Facilities Manager at the Scottish FA, pointed out that the 350 synthetic turf fields in the country enable 9.7 hours of healthy, physical activity. Banning these fields indiscriminately will have massive implications for Scottish society.

The drafting of a report is now handled by a consultancy company. Testing institute Sports Labs is on hand to provide assistance. ‘It has become evident that the synthetic turf industry is already ahead of the guidance documents currently used to determine the position of each industry,’ Eric O’Donnell of Sports Labs claims. It’s an encouraging message that also requires to be managed correctly. ‘While most companies in Europe and North America have started to accept the debate about possible microplastic pollution from synthetic turf systems in their quest to develop new or better systems, large parts of places like Africa have never been pushed to look beyond the cheapest price when investing in a synthetic turf system. It is essential to invest in educating markets like this if one wants to address the issue of microplastics from synthetic turf systems.’ Madeleine Berg proposes that all parts of the synthetic turf community have a role to play. ‘The government has a role in helping to ensure that guidelines for minimising loss are implemented in all new builds, and that retrofitting fields happens during refurbishments of old fields. Designers can include specifications to reduce microplastic loss, while customers can demand that these specifications are included. But ultimately the industry can lead the way in preventing this issue. Whether that is ensuring that best practice measures are incorporated into design specifications, encouraging innovation in non-infill or organic infill-based systems, or providing training and knowledge-sharing, the industry can provide the expertise that is needed as awareness increases across the rest of the community.’

The ESTC is the industry association for the synthetic turf industry and has the vision to serve as the forum to promote, develop, grow and advocate for the synthetic turf industry. It is the voice of the industry and it aims to fulfil its role by means of close collaboration with all parties involved, be they members, end-users, sports governing bodies or legislators. ‘Assisting the Scottish government in closing the tap on microplastic pollution comes naturally as it serves the interests of the users and buyers as well as the industry,’ says Stefan Diderich. ‘There is an enormous amount of knowledge and experience available within the ESTC and we are certainly keen to assist where possible and to share that freely.’