Artificial grass is used on sports pitches all over Europe. Unfortunately, these pitches are often covered with a layer of rubber granules – a form of microplastic. Pitch In calls on owners, operators and users of plastic grass sports pitches to take action to tackle microplastic pollution.
The Pitch In project is a collaboration between KIMO and Scottish Environmental NGO, Fidra. The project aims to reduce harmful microplastic emissions into the environment from artificial grass pitches. The project name was chosen as a call to all pitch owners, maintainers and users to ‘pitch in‘ to tackle the problem. It’s also a reminder to keep microplastics in the pitch – and out of soil and the sea!
The artificial grass sports fields used widely across Europe are a significant source of microplastic pollution. The problem is growing because artificial fields are becoming increasingly popular as a durable, year-round alternative to traditional grass sports fields.
Each artificial grass surface consists of a mat of synthetic fibres held in place by a layer of sand. An additional layer of synthetic rubber granules (microplastics) improves the suitability of the surface for sports, with the synthetic grass fibres loosely holding these granules in place. However, the weather, pitch maintenance and the shoes and clothes of players can all dislodge and transport the microplastic granules away from the field.
Microplastic: not a ‘small’ problem
Owners add between 1-5 tonnes of granules to the average sports field each year, in order to replace lost granulate. To clarify, this means that pitches lose between 1 and 4 per cent of their granules every year. The most commonly-used type of rubber granulate is made from a synthetic polymer called Styrene Butadiene Rubber (SBR). Manufacturers grind up old tyres to make SBR. As a result, it can contain small quantities of harmful chemicals and heavy metals that wash out into the environment over time. Studies show that zinc, in particular, leaches out from the granulate in sufficiently high concentrations to harm soil biota and aquatic life.
Across Europe between 18,000 and 72,000 tonnes of granulate escape from artificial grass pitches annually. In addition to run-off, granulate escapes through rubbish disposal, surface water drains and players’ clothing. Meanwhile, field studies in the Netherlands found up to 70kg of granulate per year entering nearby water courses from a single pitch.
As well as the granulate microplastic, artificial sports pitches also shed tiny fragments of synthetic fibres from their blades of polypropylene ‘grass’. Each year between 5 and 10 per cent of these synthetic fibres degrade as a result of pitch use and maintenance.
Thanks to projects like Pitch In, awareness about this issue is growing. Scientists are still learning about the impact of microplastic pollution. However, studies have shown microplastic pollution affecting soil, waterways and ultimately the ocean.
Defined as solid particles smaller than 5mm in diameter and made from synthetic materials, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation recognises microplastics as one of the ‘Chemicals of Emerging Concern’. This is due to their detrimental effect on soil health. In addition, in the marine environment, microplastics substitute for natural prey of many organisms, with negative effects on growth, reproduction and survival. Zooplankton ingest microplastics with potential ramifications throughout the food web.
European Commission Decision 2010/477/EU relating to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive includes a requirement for EU states to monitor microplastics in order to ensure that they “do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment”.
Coastal communities depend on healthy marine ecosystems. In order to meet Sustainable Development Goal Targets 12.4, 12.5, 14.1 and in line with the precautionary principle, all reasonable steps should be taken to reduce the emission of microplastics from artificial grass playing fields into the environment.
What we are doing about it?
In 2018 KIMO passed a resolution on ‘Microplastic Pollution from Artificial Grass Sports Fields’. Since then, we have worked to raise awareness of the problem, and to encourage municipalities, sports clubs, sportsmen and sportswomen to take practical step to reduce their microplastic footprint.
Together with Scottish NGO Fidra, we have developed a ‘Community Toolkit‘ and ‘Best Practice Guidelines‘ to help all pitch owners, maintainers and users to pitch in and make a positive difference for our shared marine environment. You can find our more about these resources on Fidra’s Pitch In website.
What can I do?
There are many steps that you can take, for example by urging your sports clubs or municipalities to:
- Use infill materials which reduce microplastic pollution;
- Install perimeter barriers, exit grates and other physical infrastructure adjustments to reduce microplastic emissions from existing fields;
- Provide maintenance staff with training regarding practical guidelines to mitigate the amount of infill lost during routine maintenance activities;
- Prevent infill loss to surface water drains which flow into watercourses and ultimately empty into the ocean;
- Raise awareness of the problem of microplastic pollution and promote behaviours that reduce infill loss amongst users of artificial grass sports fields;
- Incorporate microplastic pollution mitigation features as standard in all new fields;
- Enforce existing legislation by establishing linkages between clubs, municipal sports departments and municipal environmental departments. This should ensure that environmental best practice for artificial turf playing fields is followed;
- Make an individualised ‘Microplastic Reduction Action Plan’ for your artificial grass playing field.
Finally, for a more complete list of best practice measures, you can download the KIMO/Fidra Best practice guidelines here: