Will the EU blow the whistle on 100,000 toxic sports pitches?

With microplastics pollution at dangerous levels, Europe is preparing to ban almost all plastic added to products. Where will this change be felt the most? The answer surprised regulators: sports pitches.

Players have little idea of how toxic the microplastic granules added to pitches are, reports Jack Hunter.

Microplastic pollution is out of control, according to EU scientists. By far the largest use of microplastic is spent vehicle tyres ground-up and used on synthetic football and other sports pitches. Tyres include synthetic rubber, a plastic polymer with lots of toxic additives. So the granules are a real worry, so much so they are banned from waste landfill sites. 

Young and adult players alike have little idea about potential risks of a carcinogenic and genotoxic off-gas coming from pitches, regularly found at high levels, nor the 500kg of toxic granules that spill off the average pitch every year and poison the environment, packed with a cocktail of chemical additives and heavy metals, including high levels of zinc and chlorine

There are a lot of pitches – around 100,000 are forecast be in place before 2021. These generate a flood of 16,000 tonnes of granule pollution every year in Europe. Even the strictest pollution controls predict an estimated 50kg of granule pollution will be released per pitch.

Little wonder then that after being asked by the European Chemicals Agency to look into the matter, an EU panel of scientific experts last year recommended a complete ban of tyre granule pitch infill. The granules were a surprise addition to the original list of microplastics being considered for a ban, added only after it became clear quite how large their use is.

Safe, natural alternatives exist, such as ground olive stones, walnut shells and wood. Cork has been certified by FIFA for the highest level international matches. Yet only 3% of FIFA certified pitches in 2017 used organic alternatives, a tiny fraction, perhaps choked by a flood of cheap toxic granules. In 2016, global production of natural and synthetic rubber reached 27.3 million tonnes, with around 70% used in tyres. A ban by Brussels would surely boost the natural alternatives. 

Pitched battles

But in recent months, the EU has come under intense pressure from the tyre production and recycling industry to avoid a ban because pitches make up around 30% of their market. Other major customers are children’s playgrounds and walkways. And there are a lot of tyres to use: a billion go to waste globally each year. 

A full-sized artificial football field absorbs around 25,000 shredded tyres, weighing some 100-120 tonnes. So in the 1990s, vast spent tyre mountains started disappearing as they were shredded to become pitch infill. This trend eased pressure on industry to clean up its act as the disposal problem shifted to pitch owners. 

But the disposal problem arguably gets harder when every tyre becomes hundreds or thousands of shreds. Although industry recommends recycling old pitches, NGOs say only one company in Europe offers genuine recycling and hoarding of spent pitches in large hills of idle waste is commonplace. 

The fact is, we have replaced natural grass pitches with toxic waste. NGOs want a switch to pitches made from natural materials, something Norway is trialing, rather than hiding toxic tyre waste in plain sight.

A final round of public consultation on the EU microplastic ban ends on 1 September. We will know if pitches are included by December, when ECHA hands its recommendation to the European Commission. Member state governments will vote on the law in 2021 and it is expected to go into force in early 2022.


Photo by Devin H