No, Europe is not going to ban artificial grass fields. Yes, many of the sports centers and tracks that use these types of facilities will probably have to change over the next decade. The EU has declared war on microplastics and in its crusade it has decided to get serious with elements that have been part of our daily landscape for decades, such as glitter or certain cosmetics, detergents and, indeed, sports courts. Their goal is not to do away with artificial fields as such, but with the fill material.
Brussels’ strategy and deadlines are very clear.
What happened? That Brussels wants to confront one of the great environmental challenges: the surprising and increasingly worrying proliferation of microplastics, particles that scientists have already identified in the most unexpected places in our body, food and even remote caves. For this purpose, Europe has announced a series of measures to “restrict” these contaminating fragments, synthetic polymers of less than five millimeters that are insoluble, resistant and are “intentionally added.” The Commission estimates that its package of measures will prevent the release of nearly half a million tons.
In the sights of the authorities there is a wide range of products that range from cosmetics that incorporate microplastics as exfoliants or to achieve a certain texture to detergents, glitter, fertilizers, toys, medicines, devices… and certain sports facilities.
What sports facilities? The EU is very clear about this. In the statement published in September to announce the new restrictions, it does not mention any type of court. Its focus is on a very specific element: “The granular filling material used in artificial sports surfaces.” And it focuses on these particles, explains the EU, because they represent “the largest source of emissions of microplastics intentionally added to the environment.”
Is that everything the EU says? No. Both on the Commission’s website and in the text of the new regulation itself, available online, some more touches are provided on the type of artificial polymers on which Brussels is focusing and – equally or even more important – what they are. the schedule you manage.
Unlike what happens with cosmetics with microbeads, which will suffer restrictions immediately, the sales ban that affects sports courts will be applied in eight years, a period with which the EU intends to give administrations and owners a reasonable amount of time to look for “alternatives” and allow most fields to reach the end of their useful life. Regarding the type of particles, the Commission insists: “Granular filler material used in artificial sports surfaces.”
But… And how much will the measure cost? Community technicians have already made the calculation and estimate that the new restrictions, as a whole, including those that affect both sports facilities and other areas, will entail a bill of 19,000 million euros over the next two decades. . It is a considerable figure, but for the community authorities they consider that “the socioeconomic costs are proportional to the environmental benefits.”
The Commission clarifies in any case that all products that do not release microplastics during use will be excluded from the veto. Of course, as long as their manufacturers provide clear instructions on how they should be used and disposed of to prevent contaminating particles from being released.
What will it mean for Spanish fields? That’s the million dollar question. Brussels’ crusade is against microplastics and “granular infill material”, not against the concept of artificial grass pitches itself. The key is the impact that this restriction may have on the vast map of grassroots sports fields in Spain. It specifies that throughout our geography there are more than 10,000 football fields of this type – 400 are renovated and built every year – and also points out how widespread the use of recycled rubber filling is.
Are there alternatives? To achieve their appearance, softness and offer the advantages of artificial grass over natural grass, the courts use polyethylene with a polyurethane or latex base that is in turn settled on sand and granules obtained from recycled tires. There are already experts working on finding alternatives to rubber for sports courts, but the task is not easy.
“It’s going to be a big problem for the industry,” Gallardo Guerrero, professor of Physical and Sports Education, explains to the newspaper. “They have to be more than five millimeters and sustainable, at least of recycled origin and, at the same time, recyclable, that cannot be emitted into the environment and control their use,” explains Jorge García Unanue, IGOID researcher at the University of Castilla la Mancha.
On the table are proposals such as testing materials from greenhouses, eliminating fillers to avoid rubber or reconsidering them with options of natural origin, such as cork or shredded wood. The problem today is that they also pose important handicaps related to both the quality of the solution and its own sustainability. Over the last few years there are clubs and institutions that have already opted for hybrid grass fields.
Is it a new debate? No. The Brussels decision is relevant because it poses concrete restrictions and provides a medium-term calendar, but neither the debate on microplastics nor certainly the one that revolves around artificial grass fields are new. The use of SBR granules (styrene-butadiene rubber) on sports fields has generated controversy in the past even due to its impact on the health of athletes. In 2016, Dutch television broadcast a documentary about the risks of this type of facility and even the Royal Netherlands Football Association requested an investigation from the authorities.
Are they all advantages? The EU’s objective is to stop the proliferation of microplastics, but the veto of the “granular filler material” used in sports facilities brings important challenges that have also been discussed for some time. Just a few months ago Signus explained that around 50% of recycled rubber is used to fill artificial grass fields and the sector has been warning for some time about the consequences of prohibiting the use of this material on artificial grass fields.
Another key is that, although Brussels has decided that the ban will not apply for eight years to “give time to change to alternatives” and “allow the majority of existing fields to reach the end of their useful life”, In Spain, artificial grass soccer fields continue to be inaugurated today due to their attractiveness and advantages over natural coverage.