Reclaimed components of end-of-life synthetic turf can, by all means, be reused or repurposed. Authorities have drafted or are busy drafting quality standards that define the various parameters. However, what matters most is that the end-of-life turf is processed correctly.
This winter, the few synthetic turf recycling companies operating in Europe will process approximately 4 million square metres of end-of-life turf. In an era where sustainability is key, reclaimed materials are the new gold. “What once started with separating the performance infill from the stabilizing infill and the carpet has now moved to the pureness of the reclaimed material,” says Eric van Roekel, the director of synthetic turf recycling company GBN-AGR in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The plant processes 2.5 million sqm annually and is the biggest synthetic turf recycling plant in the world. “I can safely say that the reclaimed stabilizing sand and performance infill we make available for reuse, is 99.9% pure. The carpet and yarn recycled by us is used to produce a variety of products and each is tested according to a variety of standards,” he says, referring to the examples of protection for riverbanks or scaffolding planks made from reclaimed synthetic turf carpets. “These products meet stringent requirements in the interest of the safety of people or the environment, hence it is essential that the raw material they are made of is of a high grade.”
All to good use
A reclaimed long-pile synthetic turf surface produces approximately 310,000 kg of material. “The 145,000 kgs of performance infill and 145,000 kg of stabilizing sand are all retrieved as much as possible before being cleaned and made available for reuse,” van Roekel points out. The GBN-AGR director has noticed a growing interest in his reclaimed sand and performance infill. “People are getting increasingly conscious about the environment. With the European Commission about to ban the sale of polymeric infill from 2029, there is a growing understanding that reclaimed polymeric infill is a better way to top-up the surface until such time as the carpet has to be replaced, than buying virgin material. Using reclaimed infill will certainly reduce your CO2 footprint.” The performance infill complies with the EN 15330-5 standard, a standard that is currently awaiting adoption by the European Standards Committee (CEN). The standard specifies infill material for use in synthetic turf surfaces, and the updated version includes a section on the specifications for reclaimed stabilizing sand and performance infill.
Tested and approved
Testing Institute Labosport already uses the standard when validating reclaimed infill. “For reclaimed infills, we validate the particle size, particle shape, bulk density, inhalable dust content, PAH content, migration of chemical elements, elastic properties and durability,” says David Rigby, a Technical Director at Labosport UK. The elastic properties of performance materials are established by means of the universal test machine. “The test is conducted at a laboratory temperature of approximately 23 degrees Celsius and determines the energy restitution of the infill material after its compression.” The durability is established by subjecting the reclaimed polymeric infill to 15,000 cycles in a stud roller test.
The test can be applied to all reclaimed polymeric infills and might be adopted by governing bodies like FIFA and World Rugby, Rigby believes. “They may look to adopt these methods in the update to the FIFA test handbook.” Both governing bodies are planning to update their handbook in 2023.
New standard for sand
Authorities in the Netherlands are also working on a standard for reclaimed stabilizing sand. Early next year, the Dutch Olympic Committee, the custodian of all standards and regulations for sports infrastructure in the country, will introduce a new approach to validate sports surfaces. Instead of describing the characteristics of the material, the new approach will define the performance it will be expected to deliver. The Dutch hockey and netball federations have already shown interest in using reclaimed stabilizing stand in their surfaces. The use of reused sand in new synthetic turf football surfaces is still being investigated. “For understandable reasons, there is a fear that the shape and particle size of reclaimed stabilizing sand could clog up the drainage holes in the backing of new synthetic turf football pitches,” a source with intimate knowledge told Sportsfields.info. “That is why we are still engaging still the industry to work out the details and to establish how we can prevent this from happening.” Another problem is that the Dutch standard for stabilizing sand for synthetic turf was redrafted in 2013. Most fields that are currently being processed contain sand that no longer complies with the new standard.
Re-use of carpet
GBN-AGR deliberately chose to also process the synthetic turf carpet instead of selling it off as a second-hand product. “There is value in the plastics. Besides, the problem with selling the carpet for use elsewhere means you no longer have control over where it will end up eventually,” van Roekel points out. The GBN-AGR factory saw the light once players in the synthetic industry banded together, and has TenCate Grass, GreenFields, Edel Grass, Domo Sports Grass and Limonta Sports amongst its shareholders.
Eric O’Donnell of Sports Labs voices similar sentiments. “Traceability has become a big thing. A lot of responsibility has been placed on the shoulders of the synthetic turf product manufacturers to ensure their product is disposed of correctly by the end of its lifespan,” he says. “Owners of end-of-life synthetic turf have the responsibility for how the turf is dealt with at the end of its life. It’s a responsibility that private buyers or companies in other industries often do not really understand, making it likely that the carpet will eventually end up in landfill. This is exactly what the authorities are trying to prevent from happening.” The Sports Labs director is closely involved with the Environmental Working Group of the Synthetic Turf Council in North America as well as its counterpart for the EMEA region.
O’Donnell admits that internationally, the market for reclaimed synthetic turf is still muddy. “In Europe, there is a heightened awareness of the Duty of Care. There is also a robust legal framework that describes how end-of-life turf should be handled and processed. Local authorities have the responsibility to see that all protocols and procedures are followed up correctly. However, this involvement and concern is not shared everywhere.” He refers to the US, the biggest synthetic turf market in the world, as an example. “Repurposing the carpet is not considered as something bad or something that has the attention of the authorities in the US,” he points out. Here, end-of-life turf for sport applications often ends up in golf courses or farm applications or use elsewhere in the built environment. It is a development that also might have dangerous implications as synthetic turf for sports is a fire hazard. Contrary of synthetic turf for landscaping applications, synthetic turf for sports does not contain flame retardants and its behaviour while being on fire, is not tested before it is approved for release onto the markte.
Increasingly appealing market
Recently, a number of companies have issued press releases and statements indicating that they will enter the market for recycling discarded synthetic turf. “It’s an interesting development but we’ll have to wait and see if they will manage to pull it off,” van Roekel says. “Recycling synthetic turf and producing something that still has value, is a complicated process and it takes time to master. While the processing process is straightforward, it is the planning of the maintenance, the replacement of the knives and the maintaining of a consistent up-time that makes things challenging.” Confident that all challenges now have been identified, GBN-AGR is looking at establishing plants in other countries. “We are currently in talks with authorities in various countries.”
The various components in an end-of-life synthetic turf surface can be used in a new surface or new product. Standards are in place to validate the quality of reclaimed materials. What matters most is that the end-of-life synthetic turf is processed by an accredited synthetic turf recycling company.