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
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