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Going Green

The growing popularity of 3G/4G pitches means that each year around 1 million sq m of artificial turf needs to be replaced. The industry now faces a challenge – how to do this in an environmentally friendly way?

by Eric O’Donnell, sportslabs | Published in Sports Management 2015 issue 2
While methods exist which would allow up to 
90-95 per cent of materials to be recycled, the high cost of doing so remains a barrier /
While methods exist which would allow up to 90-95 per cent of materials to be recycled, the high cost of doing so remains a barrier/

As the number of artificial sports pitches increases across Europe, so does the need to renovate and refurbish them. It is in the artificial turf industry’s interests – as well as the end users’ – that existing stock is kept in good, safe and playable condition.

The maintenance and upgrading of pitches, however, creates by-products – tonnes of sand and rubber and thousands of square metres of unwanted turf. This all needs to be discarded – or recycled – in an appropriate manner.

Currently, around 100 full-size pitches are replaced in the UK each year. The number of smaller pitches being replaced is harder to count, but will add significantly to the total volume of material in need of disposal on an annual basis. Best estimates put the total figure of artificial turf to be disposed at around 1 million sq m each year. Presently, the majority of this unwanted turf ends up in landfill or in other unspecified sites.

The industry is aware of the issue, but has found balancing a high volume/low margin production with a sustainability policy – which would make recycling more affordable – challenging. The competition and the relative over-supply in the market means that upgrading to a recyclable product is seldom considered due to the initial cost of purchasing the product. Processes do exist, for example, to deal with the difficult to recycle polymers within artificial turf, but these processes are expensive to deliver.

What the sector needs to aim for is a multi-faceted approach to recycling – encompassing development of products which can be more easily recycled and the adoption of a low waste approach at all levels of production and delivery. Other measures should include cost effective plants and the setting up of processes to allow infill and turf materials to be better developed into new raw materials and converted to new products.

Luke Edwards, commercial director at Murfitts Industries – a leading producer of rubber granules used in sport pitches – says that recycling shouldn’t be seen as a problem, but rather as a challenge.

“Recycling is certainly achievable and using current methods it is possible to recycle around 90-95 per cent of the materials,” Edwards says. “The challenge we have is really twofold. Firstly, recycling methods tend to be complex and expensive – so the key is to bring down the cost to make recycling more accessible. Secondly, we need to balance cost with solutions that are both practical and feasible, at the same time as respecting the fact that the old turf is a waste material.

An example of how the lack of incentive creates barriers to recycling is the way a client can easily dispose of an artificial pitch by sub-contracting a specialist firm to remove and cart off the old turf system and infill for as little as £1.50 per sq m. In most cases there is no audit trail of where the used materials end up. Even if proper landfill is used, the cost of disposal is unlikely to be more than £2 - £3 per sq m. Compare that with the cost of recycling a used pitch – around £5 - £6 per sq m, depending on what is done with the turf at the end of its life – and it’s clear to see why recycling is not seen as a cost-friendly option.

While recycling costs are likely to come down in the future, a lot has to happen before there is any incentive to recycle in the UK. At present, there is no reprocessing plant in the country and funding agencies do not incentivise contractors to have sustainable practices by offering a bonus or dividend. It’s not all doom and gloom though; there are products and companies offering eco-friendly lift and de-fill services – such as Turf Muncher and TRS – while suppliers are increasingly looking at recycling.

Fieldturf and TigerTurf are among the companies which recycle materials into shock pads. Tiger Turf also recently launched a new multifunctional and environmentally-friendly synthetic turf system, which aims to reduce the waste accumulated by 3G pitches at the end of their natural lives. TenCate Ecocept is a porous base which uses a combination of recycled materials and prevents the need for waste materials to go to landfill – as well as significantly reducing the carbon footprint of new pitch installations. According to Paul Langford, managing director at TigerTurf, the system offers “cradle to cradle recyclability”, with up to 90 per cent of the base layer made from otherwise landfilled products such as end of life waste plastics and a rubber crumb infill. “This has the potential to save as much as 140 tonnes from landfill for each full-size pitch installed,” Langford says.

Another company which has taken an innovative approach to tackling the problem is Xtraction. By carrying out work on site and reclaiming and re-using materials, the company aims to minimise damage to the environment and reduce consumption and cost by ethically removing playing surfaces. An example of Xtraction’s work is the Mayfield School in Redbridge, London. The school had to have its all-weather pitch removed and replaced just months after it had been laid because it did not meet the Football Association’s specifications.

Xtraction was able to reclaim 156 tonnes of infill from the pitch, allowing it to be reused as infill material for the new 3G pitch – removing the need for an estimated 19 lorries to remove it and bring new material to site. The carpet itself was undamaged by the process and will be re-used in public access areas at Twickenham during the Rugby World Cup later this year – it will also be available for further relocation and reuse after that. Xtraction co-director Nick Wells described the project: “There had clearly been a misunderstanding regarding the school’s new pitch as it was only four or five months old. We took on the contract at cost. It was a risk, but we wanted to demonstrate our process and show how crazy it is to throw away valuable materials.

“We’re talking about sand from the Jurassic period – one of the world’s finite resources and worth a lot of money. All in all, the process avoided a huge amount of material being dumped in landfill and saved the environment more than 2,000 haulage miles. What we demonstrated is that pitches can be replaced in a responsible, eco-friendly way with zero waste.”

What can we do about it?
The change needs to be instigated by those funding refurbishments and installations of artificial pitches. Local authorities, clubs and national governing bodies (NGBs) need to create frameworks for sustainable approaches to be implemented on every job they fund. Failure to act now will only compound the problem, as artificial turf grows in popularity and the number of pitches needing replacing will increase.

What also needs to happen is that those who specify contracts will need to be educated on what can be done to lower the carbon footprint of artificial pitch construction and refurbishment projects. If sustainable materials and practices are incorporated at the specifications stage, then projects will become more environmentally friendly.

Murfitts Industries’ Edwards agrees. “While research and development will undoubtedly have a major role to play in this, so will education. The reality is that while fully recyclable turf products and systems already exist, they are often more expensive to produce – and are seen by some as being inferior to what is already on the market. However, I believe that once the cost is brought down, there will be more demand for them.

“In short, I believe the challenge is to create better value recycling solutions for the fields already in the ground, at the same time as developing more cost-effective, recyclable turf systems.”

Meanwhile, on-site processing can reduce the need to transport materials off site to remote processing plants – reducing the carbon footprint of recycling further. Manufacturers also need to make it easier for products to be recycled, by introducing compatible polymers, backing cloths and adhesives so that the processing of materials becomes more easily accomplished – and with a low energy requirement.

For Wells, suppliers and contractors play a crucial role. “There are still companies out there which claim only new sand should be used in 3G pitches,” he says. “Something we‘ve proved not to always be the case. Sadly, there are also contractors willing to dispose of old carpet in ways that are simply unsustainable.”

Owners and operators of pitches – and suppliers too – will probably need to pay more for recycling to happen. The question to address right now is can they afford not to?

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