Hope that the European Commission will allow the use of polymeric infill in synthetic turf fields to be continued in the foreseeable future seems to have diminished following a press release by the European Chemical Agency (ECHA).

ECHA issued the press release last week, following the final meeting of its Socio-Economic Committee (SEAC). The committee had discussed its final opinion with regards to the ECHA restriction dossier that intends to ban the sale of intentionally added microplastics in an attempt to stop environmental pollution.

The adoption of SEAC’s opinion follows an opinion that was adopted by the Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC) in June 2020.

Much to the surprise of the industry, the press release stated that ‘Both committees concluded that an EU-wide restriction under the EU’s chemicals legislation REACH is the most appropriate means to address the risks of billions of small, solid plastic particles polluting our environment’.

Until recently it was believed that SEAC was receptive to the idea of allowing the use of polymeric infill to continue providing synthetic turf fields would be fitted with measures that would keep the infill inside the field perimeter.

Bjorn Hansen, ECHA’s Executive Director explains the statement: “We need to protect our environment from microplastic pollution, and this restriction proposal is the most comprehensive of its kind in the world. We have now concluded our scientific and technical assessment and given our recommendations on how to best address the risks. This will contribute to decision making in the European Commission and the aims of the EU’s Plastics Strategy.”

Pollution in numbers

The proposal aims to ban products from the European market that contain intentionally added microplastics if these are released to the environment when the products are used. Examples are cosmetics, cleaning and laundry products, fertilisers, plant protection products and seed coatings.

Several options to prevent the release of infill material from synthetic turf sports pitches were recommended to policy makers, including a ban on placing on the market after a transition period of six years.

In its press release ECHA points out that the granular infill material used on artificial turf pitches is the biggest source of pollution. No mention was made of all steps the industry has taken over the past two years to arrest the matter.

This included the release of the TR 17519 by the European Standards Committee (CEN) which describes ways of containing infill materials used in many types of synthetic turf sports fields within the confines of the sports field. This document has been adopted by governing bodies like FIFA and world rugby. The EMEA Synthetic Turf Council (ESTC) also released a study by Swedish consultancy firm Ecoloop. This company established that, by adopting risk management measures, the release of infill into the environment could be reduced by 98%.

ECHA points out that 85% of the 21,000 full size and 72,000 small-sized pitches installed in Europe, currently use intentionally added microplastic infill.

With each full-size pitch typically using 95,000 kg polymeric infill and 1 kg of SBR infill being blamed for containing approximately 500,000 loose microplastic granules, ECHA’s Risk Assessment Committee (RAC) estimated earlier this year that third-generation synthetic turf fields are to blame for the collective release of 16,000 tonnes microplastics annually.

If the European Commission decides to go ahead with a restriction, this will prevent 500 000 tonnes of microplastics in all industries collectively, from ending up in the environment over 20 years. It goes without saying that banning the sale of polymeric infill for third-generation synthetic turf will help the commission taking a giant leap in making this happen.

Over the same period, the total cost of the restriction to European society is estimated to be €10.8 or €19.1 billion depending how environmental risks from the granular infill material (mainly from shredded car tyres) are addressed.

The costs consist of the need to reformulate mixtures, replace microplastics with alternative materials and the need for authorities to enforce the restriction.

Steps left

SEAC’s opinion will be available on ECHA’s website in early 2021. RAC’s opinion is already available on ECHA’s website. It is now up to the European Commission to discuss the two opinions and to vote for a final decision. An adoption requires 55% of the Member States to vote in favour. This 55% should also represent 65% of the population within the European Union. The European Commission is expected to vote late next year.

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