The US state of Maryland is about to vote on a bill that should allow authorities to track the chain of custody of a synthetic turf field. Plans for the bill were met by fierce opposition from the US synthetic turf industry. However, the latter can learn some lessons from their peers in Europe.
The proposed bill has been in the making since 2019. The first draft required a producer of synthetic turf and turf infill sold or distributed in the state to establish a system to track the chain of custody of their product. As you can read here, the industry has vehemently opposed the bill from the very beginning.
The pushback has pushed legislators to slightly adjust the bill. In the version that will be tabled soon, it will now be the responsibility of the custodian of a synthetic turf sports or playing field installed in the state to report the chain of custody information. The new bill also proposes to make it the responsibility of the Department of the Environment to establish a database to capture all installations. Data to be submitted include the location and size of the field as well as the brand name and names and contact information of certain persons within 30 days after installation. Close to USD 52,000 has been earmarked to establish this database that should become publicly available through a website. “What the reporting system will do is document where these turf playing fields exist, and then where they go when they are moved,” delegate Mary Lehman explained during a recent hearing. “We do not know that now.” Lehman has been sponsoring bills that would identify synthetic fields as hazardous waste to be disposed of properly since 2019.
One size doesn’t fit all
The new bill will apply to any synthetic turf sports or playing field larger than 465 sqm. This has now triggered the industry, represented by the Synthetic Turf Council (STC), to advocate to record synthetic turf sports fields installations of only 4,650 sqm. and larger. “Anything below the proposed size would include landscape and commercial applications that have lifespans of up to 15 and 20 years,” STC president and CEO Melanie Taylor told the Maryland General Assembly during a hearing. She turned down a request by Sportsfields.info to go further into detail or to provide further clarification. This hasn’t come as a surprise to an industry insider. “There is simply too much money at stake and the STC is taking its role of being the custodian of the synthetic turf industry very seriously. They are only interested in how much money they can make,” we were told by this insider, with good understanding of the North American second-hand synthetic turf business. “Companies earn big money by removing old turf and storing it somewhere before selling it off to a new buyer. These guys double dip: they are getting paid handsomely to remove the old turf, sometimes in excess of USD 100,000, and also make money from selling it to anybody interested. They don’t care about protocols or the environment and have no qualms about selling the used carpet with all infill material still in it. Cleaning the carpet and removing the infill is a cost they are not interested in carrying.” Unfortunately, it is no wonder that one can find (illegal) sites all over the States where synthetic turf is stored (incorrectly). Even those claiming to establish a synthetic turf recycling facility do not always satisfy the authorities. Even worse, ignorant or ill-informed companies increasingly pay the price for taking a shortcut and rather buy discarded synthetic turf instead of investing a specifically designed solution. Here you can read what can happen when discarded synthetic turf that hadn’t been cleaned from its infill is used for an application it wasn’t designed for in the first place.
Lessons to be learnt
Ignorance by both buyers and sellers of discarded synthetic turf has triggered European authorities to start investigating the issue of microplastic pollution. This has resulted in authorities concluding that third-generation synthetic turf is the single biggest contributor to this pollution and the introduction of a ban on the sale of polymeric infill material. This has caused the biggest industry crisis for a long time, with no approved solution being readily available other than the alternative of using natural infill, which comes with its own challenges.
Another side effect of the ungoverned removal of used synthetic turf is the piles of reclaimed synthetic turf that are popping up in countries, often in the countryside, where enforcement of (environmental) laws is often limited. It was this that triggered the authorities in the Netherlands to force the industry into action. While the Netherlands is slightly larger than the US state of Maryland, the synthetic turf density of the Netherlands is three to four times higher than what Maryland currently has. Luckily, the Dutch industry was receptive to the problem they had caused and were willing to take responsibility for it. Earlier this year they released a guideline about how synthetic turf should be treated when the field is removed or renovated. “The Dutch Waste Directive considers synthetic turf that is reclaimed to be a waste product and views the owner as the disposer. It is the owner’s responsibility to dispose of the synthetic turf in accordance with the law and for correctly complying with all associated legislation,” says Eric van Roekel of synthetic turf recycling company GBN-AGR. The company was established with input from some of the biggest suppliers to the synthetic turf market. GBN-AGR currently processes close to 1.5 million sqm. of reclaimed synthetic turf per year. Reclaimed sand and infill is sold back to the synthetic turf industry, while the reclaimed yarn and backing are shredded and converted to a conglomerate before being sold as a raw material to produce items that are an alternative to virgin wood or virgin plastics.
In the Netherlands, all synthetic turf fields used by any stadium or sports club are captured on a national database that is co-managed by the Dutch National Olympic Committee, the custodian of sports infrastructure in the country, and the Association for Sports and Municipalities. Details they store include the year of installation, spec sheets of all components that, combined, produce the entire turf system (including subbase), the testing institute that validated the entire system as well as the contact persons for the club and the installing contractor. “Disposed synthetic turf can only be processed by certified companies. All companies and organisations involved have a duty of care and particularly the duty to prevent environmental pollution from microplastics from the turf system. This applies from the contractor who removes the carpet to the company or organisation responsible for the site where the rolls might be temporarily stored, to the transporting company, and, finally, the company that will process the turf,” Van Roekel continues. “The National Waste Plan dictates that the various mono streams must be separated from each other and recycled into useful materials.” Nevertheless, the guideline does leave some provision for synthetic turf of reasonable quality to be sold onwards. This only applies to turf no older than six years, which is often the case when the synthetic turf carpet is reclaimed from a venue used for professional league football. These fields usually experience significantly less footfall. Furthermore, these surfaces are often replaced prematurely as stadium owners or clubs tend to prefer playing on the latest development in turf. “This is something we encourage, as this will prevent the use of new raw materials to produce another carpet,” van Roekel points out. Pushing Earth Overshoot Day forward, the day when the world has depleted its annual allocation of raw materials, is on top of his corporate agenda.
Room for improvement
The guideline has widely been accepted. Nevertheless, some believe there is still room for improvement. “The cut-off age of six years to determine whether a carpet can be sold on or not, doesn’t make sense to me,” says Carl Rennen of Carpetbeater, a company that removes the carpet on behalf of contractors replacing the turf, and sells some of the reclaimed turf onwards. “I vehemently oppose the practice whereby reclaimed third-generation synthetic turf carpets are being sold with the mineral and performance infill still inside. However, I know from experience that people prefer a carpet that has been used extensively. Such carpet will look more natural, as every fibre has been shaped differently through the wear it experienced. Providing the carpet is clean, I don’t see a reason why such carpet cannot be placed back onto the market, including for use outside a sports venue.” Those opposing the sale of extensively used turf point out that microplastic particles from the heavily used yarn can also pollute the environment. Rennen believes this doesn’t necessarily have to be an issue. “Our process delivers a carpet that is 99.9% clean and does not shed any more microplastic particles than what is currently being permitted. We are that confident, that we are in the process of having this process certified.” It is for that reason he would have preferred that instead of an age cap of six years, a certain level of cleanliness had been adopted in the guideline.
Regarding the concern that the used synthetic turf bought by private individuals will ultimately end up in the normal waste stream, as private individuals are not familiar enough with what the legislative framework requires, Rennen says: “Society knows what is allowed and what is not allowed. It is just a matter of enforceability.” Van Roekel slightly disagrees with this view but does agree with the need for enforcing legislation as well as common sense. “The detrimental impact on the environment of poorly removed and stored synthetic turf is well-documented and is simply unacceptable,” he says.
It is only a matter of time before people start to wake up and smell the coffee. The bill that will soon be tabled in the US state of Maryland is certainly a good start to prevent things ‘go south’. However, for a market that has an annual turnover of USD 3 billion and installs approximately 26 million sqm. synthetic turf per annum, taking responsibility and getting more involved in preventing their product to become a problem is advised before the legislators will take the upper hand and issue directives that are binding.