March magazine feature: How soon will it be before sustainable, re-useable synthetic turf becomes the everyday?

How soon will it be before sustainable, re-useable synthetic turf becomes the everyday?

This, the first of a two-part series, describes the growth of artificial and hybrid playing surfaces, and the end-of-life problems they present, wirtten by Greg Rhodes for the March 2019 Groundsman magaine. 


Artificial turf was first produced in 1966 in Houston, Texas, but arguably only gained global acceptance, in football at least, with the advent of third-generation (3G) systems at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s. Three in four FIFA-registered football installations are laid in Europe, where many of the turf carpet manufacturers and installers are also based.

More than 200 ‘fields’ a year are being built in the UK, including training and junior areas, estimates Alastair Cox, of Alastair Cox Associates, an independent consultancy specialising in sports surfaces and facilities. He is also facilities manager for the International Hockey Federation as well as technical consultant to the European Synthetic Turf Council.

“With local authority budgets stretched, the maintenance needed to keep natural turf in good condition is an issue,” he says. “The Rugby Football Union and the Football Association (FA) certainly view synthetics as the solution for community needs, particularly to take the intensity of play in winter. And local authorities have developed a strategic plan with the FA, Sport England and the Premier League to fund facilities.”

Synthetic pitches deliver a valuable revenue stream for venues, while funding and long-term lease options are available for clubs meeting current criteria, one of which is to provide evidence that income projections can cover provision for a replacement system when the time comes.

Upgrade issues

In the UK, as elsewhere, concerns centre around disposal and re-use of the first-, second-, and older third-generation synthetic turf pitches as these are now being replaced with 3G and advanced sand-filled systems.

“These non-filled and sand-filled surfaces failed to mimic natural grass playing characteristics,” Alastair says. Although early adopters such as Luton Town FC and Queens Park Rangers laid pitches, “football didn’t take to them so they did not evolve”. He adds: “Hockey, however, did embrace the technology and surfaces for this sport developed accordingly. Only with the introduction of 3G, long-pile, surfaces, including rubber crumb infill, did surfaces perform like natural grass and have proliferated as a result.”

The Netherlands, Belgian, Eastern Europe, Switzerland and Scandinavia, in particular, have realised the predicament they face in regulating the disposal of synthetic turf and of finding new markets for the materials. Trade bodies such as the European Synthetic Turf Council, which represents carpet and components manufacturers, is actively seeking ways to recycle and re-use end-of-life systems.

Third-generation turf systems generally share common components:

  • Polyethylene (PE) turf pile, polypropylene (PP) primary backing to provide structure and spacing that the pile is woven into, and secondary backing of a liquid polyurethane (PU) or latex applied to bind the pile to the backing 
  • Stabilising infill to keep the fibres vertical
  • Performance infill to provide the correct level of impact resistance to reduce injuries and help reproduce the playability of natural grass.
  • Polyethylene is the polymer of choice for synthetic turf today, while polypropylene is usually the preferred fibre for price-driven domestic and landscaping applications.

An average artificial turf pitch of 106m x 71m infilled with styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR) granules, the most common type, and sand infill, weighs typically 36kg/m sq, giving a total pitch weight of around 274 tonnes. Half of that is sand stabilising infill and 44 per cent SBR (around 120 tonnes). The remaining 6 per cent is the plastic-based turf itself.


Hybrid systems

Although the Premier League “will probably never go fully synthetic”, Alastair maintains, areas of high concentration and wear are being considered for hybrid grass systems across community football. “Sport England is undertaking pilot studies on reinforced penalty boxes, which makes sense, and hybrid technology has a role to play.

“But the growth of hybrid playing surfaces further complicates the recycling picture and presents as great as or a greater problem because of the need to separate elements such as rootzone from the plastic fibre reinforcement.

“The hybrid sector is behind the pure synthetic turf industry in terms of how to recycle materials,” he says. “With an eight- to 10-year typical replacement cycle, the volume of hybrid turf is small at the moment, but will appear on the radar before too long.”

Carpet yarn is difficult to reformulate into a re-usable sports surface, Alastair adds (although a process for doing so is reportedly under research), but it can be reprocessed into less specialised, lower-grade products such as decking, garden furniture and gutters. “It could be doable,” he adds, “and we would then reach a cradle to cradle approach.”

Market inertia tempts owners and operators to adopt cheaper disposal alternatives, he argues. “Old carpet finds its way into golf clubs and agriculture for pathways, cattle walkways and horse mangers, but golf is a maturing market now. It’s a question of incentivising owners to avoid landfill.”

Taking responsibility

Every two years since 2005, international plastics consultancy AMI Consulting has issued its market intelligence report, The Global Market for Artificial Grass, which overviews sector size, structure and growth. Recent editions have included estimates for the volume of sports turf expected to be recycled.

“Synthetic sports surfaces have enjoyed exceptionally strong growth in recent years,” confirms AMI senior project consultant Sylvia Tabero, who researches and assembles the report, next due to appear in March 2020. “Although the rate of new field penetration has slowed in Europe, the market is still growing well.”

She continues: “Artificial turf has been around for more than 50 years and has a typical life expectancy of 10 years, so large quantities of played-out carpet need to be repurposed, recycled or disposed of each year. As much as 30 per cent of some manufacturers’ sports turf output could be taken up with replacing their own or others’ synthetic turf installations,” she gauges.

Further on, legislation may be the stick to force major change to the status quo but, as Alastair notes, “recycling needs a market. Sand and rubber infill probably can be cleaned and re-used, but carpet is a complex case with at least three different plastics included in synthetic turf systems”.

He concludes: “Manufacturers have no contractual link to operators and we need to ask what will happen to pitches when they are replaced, who has a legal responsibility for their proper disposal and if an adequate budget has been set aside for sustainable recycling.”




European Synthetic Turf Council,


`The Global Market for Artificial Grass` AMI Consulting,


Alastair Cox Associates,

This feature was published in the March 2019 issue of the Groundsman magazine, written by freelance journalist Greg Rhodes. Next month: we look closer at the current, and likely, options for recycling and re-use of artificial and hybrid playing surfaces.


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