3G pitches have be­come en­vi­ron­men­tal haz­ard

An­other 400 ar­ti­fi­cial sur­faces are sched­uled to be laid in Eng­land over four years – but how the old ones are dis­posed of is a con­cern

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Sport | Football -

What hap­pens to a 3G ar­ti­fi­cial foot­ball pitch after the mil­lions of hours of studs and blades pass­ing over it fi­nally ren­der these gi­ant mats of plas­tic yarn– full of sand and shred­ded tyres – use­less as a play­ing sur­face?

In Nor­way, the an­swer came as a shock. The broad­caster TV2 launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion this year when piles of 3G pitches were found dumped in the wild in the north­ern parts of the coun­try, in marshes and wood­lands. There was up­roar, es­pe­cially as the pitches were traced back to lo­cal au­thor­i­ties which had paid for them to be re­moved and re­cy­cled by what they be­lieved were rep­utable dis­posal com­pa­nies.

In the dis­trict of Bodo, north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, they paid for a pitch to be re­placed, where­upon the con­trac­tor shipped the old turf over the bor­der il­le­gally and even­tu­ally sold it sec­ond-hand to a small Croa­t­ian club. There, the faulty pitch be­gan to dis­in­te­grate al­most as soon as it was laid. The con­trac­tors had been paid at both ends of the trans­ac­tion. What re­mained was about 7,000 square me­tres of un­re­cy­cled waste – plas­tic, sand, rub­ber – that no one wanted.

The 3G turf in­dus­try is boom­ing. The Euro­pean Chem­i­cals Agency rul­ing in 2017 that set stan­dards for the rub­ber crumb used as in­fill – the 20,000 shred­ded tyres on ev­ery 3G pitch – meant the in­dus­try was at last ready to move for­ward in a huge ex­pan­sion. It is es­ti­mated that, in 2017, global growth in de­mand for ar­ti­fi­cial turf in­creased al­most 17 per cent to about 230mil­lion sq/m – enough to cover an area the size of Bris­tol, with of­f­cuts equiv­a­lent to Brighton and Hove.

The in­dus­try is ex­pected to be worth more than €3bil­lion (£2.6bil­lion) by 2021, and where there’s muck, there’s brass. Or rather, for bucks think grass – of the plas­tic, all-weather va­ri­ety.

The prob­lem that Nor­way has en­coun­tered, and oth­ers, such as Hol­land, where the 3G rev­o­lu­tion is in full swing, is what hap­pens at the end of the life cy­cle of these pitches. Depend­ing on in­ten­sity of us­age, they yield 90mil­lion hours of play over eight to 10 years – nat­u­rally, the life­spans of those with flood­lights tend to be shorter. In Eng­land, there are 3,945 pitches in pub­lic and pri­vate own­er­ship, of which 1,200 are full size, and the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion and Premier League, through the char­ity the Foot­ball Foun­da­tion, are plan­ning to build many more.

The ten­der closed this month: 400 pitches built over four years, with con­tracts due to be awarded in Jan­uary. The ma­jor­ity will be new but some will be re­laid and, in time, all will have to be re­placed. What hap­pens to the ar­ti­fi­cial turf when it is rolled up and taken away? The FA is clear that the re­spon­si­bil­ity lies with con­trac­tors, and those who seek to be its part­ners in the 3G ex­pan­sion must prove that they have the nec­es­sary li­cences to dis­pose of these pitches.

The FA says that it has a con­tract “with cho­sen providers and con­trac­tors to en­sure that it is a le­gal re­quire­ment for all 3G pitches to be dis­posed of re­spon­si­bly”. It re­quests writ­ten de­tails of dis­posal meth­ods and while it is not the only in­sti­tu­tion in this coun­try that will face this is­sue over com­ing years, it is the most high-pro­file. The ques­tion is, what be­comes of these pitches which, un­der Euro­pean Union law, are con­sid­ered waste from the mo­ment that they are lifted at the end of their life cy­cle?

There are com­pa­nies in the United King­dom which of­fer dis­posal ser­vices of 3G pitches, but none with a strat­egy for re­cy­cling them once they have been re­moved and taken away. The Daily Tele­graph has seen pic­tures of large piles of rolls of ar­ti­fi­cial turf stored on a farm in Cam­bridgeshir­e. Most re­moval ser­vices give away quan­ti­ties of ar­ti­fi­cial turf for free and ad­ver­tise it as use­ful for bri­dle­ways or golf cour­ses. The sup­ply far out­strips the de­mand, but even that mi­nus­cule reusage does not solve the prob­lem of what hap­pens when the end-user no longer needs the turf.

The Dan­ish com­pany Re-match claims to run the only plant in Europe ca­pa­ble of sep­a­rat­ing and re­cy­cling the con­stituent parts of 3G pitches, with its pro­cesses en­dorsed un­der the EU’S en­vi­ron­men­tal tech­nol­ogy ver­i­fi­ca­tion sys­tem (ETV). Its founder, Den­nis An­der­sen, is ten­der­ing for the FA con­tract and wants to build a plant in the UK. He has been a critic of the lack of com­mit­ment among gov­ern­ment and sports bod­ies to com­mit to real ar­ti­fi­cial turf re­cy­cling.

He says that the FA ten­der does not go far enough. “I don’t see many peo­ple tak­ing real re­spon­si­bil­ity for what they are putting out there,” he says. “They have strict cri­te­ria for how the field should look and per­form when it is laid, but what they do not spec­ify is what will hap­pen with the old turf when it needs to be re­placed.”

It is his sus­pi­cion that if re­cy­cling was manda­tory then Re-match, with sev­eral patents in turf re­cy­cling, would be in a very strong po­si­tion – hence the re­sis­tance. Two fur­ther con­trac­tors are also un­der­stood to be ten­der­ing for the FA con­tract – one a tyre re­cy­cler, the other a con­crete man­u­fac­turer. Depend­ing on the specifics of an ar­ti­fi­cial turf in­stal­la­tion, Re-match charges about €30,000 to re­cy­cle a sin­gle pitch, which it claims is cheaper than land­fill. Ei­ther way, this is a lu­cra­tive busi­ness. There are 4,853 pitches in the UK alone, and the op­ti­mum out­come is a re­cy­cling process that means the yarn, rub­ber and sand can be reused in new sur­faces.

The FA and the Premier League, with their part­ners at the Rugby Foot­ball Union and Eng­land Hockey, have com­mit­ted to a vast ex­pan­sion of ar­ti­fi­cial pitches – which rep­re­sent the fu­ture, as they see it, of grass­roots sport. But what about the fu­ture of the grass roots them­selves – those gi­ant plas­tic mats that will have to be torn up decade after decade? As the Nor­we­gian broad­caster TV2 pointed out, one ar­ti­fi­cial pitch alone is the equiv­a­lent of

1.4 mil­lion plas­tic bags.

Rolled up: The life­span of an ar­ti­fi­cial pitch is about eight to 10 years, after which it is usu­ally taken away to be re­cy­cled

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