The decision by the European Commission to recommend the proposed ban on the future sale of polymeric infill as well as to cold-shoulder the suggestion to make Risk Management Measures mandatory, is not confirmed yet. The recommendation still has to be approved by the Council of Europe and the European Parliament before it can pass into the statute book. Once cleared, the World Trade Organisation also has a say.
On face value, the decision by the European Commission to have a six-year transition period before the placement onto the market of microplastics is banned, appears to contradict the intended purpose of the proposed ban, especially in light of the progress the sports and synthetic turf industry have made over the past few years. While governing bodies like FIFA and World Rugby don’t have the legal framework to enforce the installation of Risk Management Measures, both are making considerable efforts to educate their markets and members about the importance of these matters. RMMs are included in the latest FIFA Handbook of Test Methods. The same applies to industry bodies like the EMEA Synthetic Council, SAPCA in the UK and the BSNC in the Netherlands. It has to be said that the industry has really taken ownership of the matter. However, despite all efforts, the EC did not go along with the advice to also include the use of RMMs.
War on microplastics
The EC wants to avoid pollution from 400k tonnes of microplastics over the next 15 years. They blame 3G synthetic turf pitches for shedding anywhere between 500 kg/field to 2,000kg/field polymeric infill per annum. With close to 30,000 full-size 3G fields alone installed all over Europe, one can do the math and understand the impact long-pile synthetic fields with polymeric infill have on the environment. Authorities have even gone as far as calling out synthetic turf fields as being the single biggest polluter of all products to which microplastics are intentionally added. These tiny solid polymer-containing particles with a dimension between 1nm≤x≤5mm take years to break down, and, likely end up in the food chain hence they should be banned they claim.
Tasked by the European Commission to investigate this issue and to recommend ways to put an end to this, the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) submitted its advice in December last year. They recommended a ban on the placement onto the market of microplastics after a transitional period of six years or extending this period to eight years, with the immediate adoption of Risk Management Measures. This could include the installation of kickboards, grids, brushes and special drains that capture the particles before they can enter the environment.
Only effective from 2029 (earliest)
The decision to go for a ban after a six-year transition period and (also) cold shouldering the use of risk management measures has been frowned upon by many. “How do I explain to my customer that he can continue allegedly polluting the environment for the coming decade at least?” an industry insider asked when contacted by Sportsfields.info. Mind you, the proposed ban will only become effective six years from the moment the ban is accepted, which, at best, will be in 2023. This is because it is now up to the Council of Europe and the European Parliament to also adopt the plan before it can pass into the statute book for a final vote. Once cleared, the adopted decision will also have to get approval from the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a process that usually involves a six-month review period at least.
This means that, even when all bureaucratic processes are running smoothly, the ban will only be implemented by 2029 at the earliest. More importantly, the ban only covers the placement onto the market of intentionally added microplastics. It will not affect the availability of polymeric infill that has been stockpiled by the owner of synthetic turf fields, nor will it affect the infill that is in fields that are still in use by the time the ban is implemented. Theoretically speaking, polymeric infill harvested from synthetic turf fields that are renovated can be used to supplement and extend the lifetime of more recently installed 3G pitches, thereby allowing the alleged environmental pollution to continue for many years after the adoption of the ban.
A bigger picture
Independent consultants from Scandinavia established in 2020 that the volume of polymeric infill ECHA claims synthetic turf sheds was incorrect. The same consultants also delivered a study of the effectiveness of various risk management measures. They concluded that, by implementing the various RMMs, infill dispersion to the environment could immediately be reduced by 97% per field per annum, in other words: from at least 1,000kg per field per year (according to ECHA) to less than 50kg per field per year. Multiply the difference by the 30,000 third-generation synthetic turf fields Europe has and the saving that can be achieved by adopting the various measures could certainly be significant.
The problem the European Commission claims it cannot tackle is the enforceability of such measures. Here, the EC is not necessarily referring to synthetic turf, but the fact that the proposed ban is intended to ban the sale of intentionally added microplastics to any market. This includes, but is not limited to, the industry for building products, the cosmetics industry and the healthcare industry. Microplastics are added to thousands of products, including paint, make-up and toothpaste, to name a few. While the risk management measures that have been handed to sports fields owners to limit environmental pollution for polymeric infill can be very effective, it’s the enforceability or difficulty to implement in other industries that has made the EC decide to shorten the window of allowing the sale of intentionally added microplastics rather than aiming for limiting the polluting capacity of products to which they are added.
Forget about RMMs? No way!
While the EC’s decision can be viewed as one that makes the investment in RMMs unnecessary, it is advisable to not get tempted. Owners of 3G sports fields do have a duty of care. This legal instrument makes it compulsory to do whatever necessary to prevent harm (to people or the environment) from happening. Although every (European) nation has its own legal framework and places different significance on the duty of care, one can rest assured that each legal framework will have, somewhere, somehow, a paragraph that discusses the importance for owners to take care (of the interest of people at present as well as future generations). Public interest groups in various countries have started using this paragraph or section to force sports field owners to invest in RMMs. In the Netherlands, a legal precedent was set when Enschede municipality was fined EUR 10,000 for failing to uphold the instruction to take care of the matter. Encouraged by the outcome, a group of Dutch citizens have since banded together. They now put pressure on municipalities and clubs wherever they can. With a European precedent set, it will not be too difficult for a judge elsewhere to adopt the opinion drafted in the Netherlands and to implement it for cases involving polymeric infill for synthetic turf fields that citizens or interest groups in other countries are trying to address.