The European Commission has established that for the next twenty years it will be possible to play football on artificial grass pitches infilled with rubber granulate obtained from tyre recycling.
This is what follows from the logical application of the decision adopted on 26 September 2023 to ban the sale (not the use) of polymeric materials for infill, starting from 15 October 2031.
Considering that the average life of an artificial pitch is at least 10-12 years, most of the pitches that will be installed in the next 8 years, for replacing of pitches at the end of their life or for new systems, will still be in operation in 2043.
Children born today will be able to play football until they reach adulthood and then they will still have two years, in which as adults they will be able to look around and become aware of the world in which they live and make the choices they deem appropriate.
More information and data relating to the actual release of microplastics from the various sources will be available, while today they have been just estimated and are not always accurate and reliable.
This was not an easy task for ECHA which is often asked to express its opinion on the most disparate issues, from microplastics to the use of certain materials in the space industry. From the infinitely small to the infinitely large.
The microplastic issue is a highly complex one, whose real dimensions, impacts and possible solutions are far from being clarified. It is an infinite topic in itself. The more possible current sources are identified, the more the development of new products and technological innovation can create new ones. At the same time, it is certainly an issue that has great impact on citizens who, although responsible for the pollution of the planet with their behavior, would still like not to suffer its effects and be able to count on a reduction in any consequent exposure.
Therefore, despite the responsibility of every citizen for the uncontrolled release into the environment every year of 1,000 grams per capita of micro dust (or more precisely nano dust) resulting from the abrasion of tires on asphalt, it is rather blamed the release of 30 grams per capita of 1-2 mm rubber granulates used for infilling artificial grass, which drops to 3 grams thanks to simple containment measures to be applied to the fields as well as more careful and responsible behavior of those who plays on those fields.
It doesn't matter if as a result of the transition to mobility with electric cars there will be an increase in tire consumption and related micro dust emissions, football pitches are pointed out as the main culprits. Since the infinitely small and the infinitely large are difficult to understand, it was chosen to focus on the infinitely medium, either referred to the dimension of particles or to the social context, which are more easily understandable and communicable.
The use of artificial grass pitches is the prerogative of the harassed middle class who do not have access to natural grass pitches, use public transport more and will hardly be able to afford an electric car in the future. Our young athletes don't even use cars and belong to a generation that seems to be able to do without them even when they reach adulthood.
Furthermore, it remains to be seen what the world and mobility will be like in 18 years. They will have greater tools and knowledge to evaluate and compare the overall impact of artificial fields, not only with regards to microplastics, but also CO2 emissions, and other environmental, medical, social indicators deriving from sports practice.
It is probable that they will not agree to give up practicing sports by virtue of decisions, taken before they were born and on the basis of questionable assessments, to combat pollution caused by other sources and other subjects. Not only because it would be serious and unfair, but because sport is now perceived as a right codified in many systems, with different formulations whose meaning can be summarized more or less in the following formulation:
“Sport must be guaranteed to all children and adolescents because it is good for the body, mind and character, promotes socialization by helping to break down barriers between oneself and others, reduces people's selfishness, encourages new friendships and the ability to collaborate, helps to get to know each other.”
In the next few years, a frighteningly high number of football pitches will reach the end of their life and will have to be redone, millions of square meters, which would be logical to redo by recycling as much as possible, directly on site, the materials already used for the construction of the same pitch, and where not suitable or sufficient, use additional materials always coming from recycling chains.
Over twenty years ago, the tire recycling sector contributed to the development of artificial grass pitches, making them high-performance, accessible, sustainable and encouraging their diffusion, to the detriment of virgin materials and more expensive techniques.
Now, due to a heterogeneity of purposes, there is a risk that less sustainable materials will regain space and occupy a market that did not exist, created thanks to recycled materials. Instead of consolidating the principles of the circular economy, we risk to assist to a U-turn in the direction of the linear economy: disposal of old fields instead of re-use and recycling of materials, new fields with lower performance, shorter duration, more expensive materials that require long-distance transport, increased costs and greater CO2 emissions.
What to do?
It must be clear and reiterated that for the next 8 years the fields can and must be made with recycled rubber infill material and that they can remain in regular operation until they reach the end of their life.
Furthermore, rubber granulate is an excellent material for the creation of Elastic Layer which is not affected by the restrictions for microplastics as it is agglomerated with binders.
Tire recycling sector is a dynamic and creative sector and is already committed to developing new solutions for both the sports sector and others. It always has and will continue to do so.
In the meantime, it is advisable that these fields be always done with suitable containment measures which have now become good and consolidated practice. This represents not only a clear signal of responsibility and coherence, but a necessary premise for sustainable supply and management over the next 8 years and the subsequent life span of the fields.
We don't know what will happen in the next twenty years, but if the alternatives that the legislation now considers compatible prove to be insufficient or unsuitable, the sector will have the credibility and data in hand to discuss the issue again.
In twenty years the new generations will have a voice to say what world they want to live in and we won't be able to stop it.