Green campaigners have warned that failure by the EU to designate rubber infill derived from tyres as a banned microplastic will lead to significant environmental harm – a claim the tyre and recycling industries strongly reject.
The European Recycling Industries’ Confederation (EuRIC) cautioned that outlawing the practice of shredding old tyres for use as a filling for artificial sports pitches will see the number of tyres incinerated skyrocket, leading to greater carbon emissions.
Green groups, however, are pushing for an outright ban on the use of rubber granules, arguing that it poses a severe hazard to health and safety, as wind and human activity spread the particles from synthetic pitches throughout the natural environment.
The wide-spread use of microplastics has led to the material infiltrating drinking water and even the food we eat. A 2019 global study produced by the environmental charity WWF shows that people could be eating up to five grams a week of plastic, the equivalent of a credit card.
The disagreement comes as decision-makers consider a report from the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), an EU regulatory body, which proposes wide-ranging restrictions on microplastics, including an outright ban on microplastics in cosmetics, cleaning products, and fertilisers.
The report includes several options for dealing with tyre-derived rubber infill – commonly used in AstroTurf pitches – including a ban on placing infill material on the market after a transition period of six years.
Other options focus on preventing the spread of rubber granules, such as mandatory fencing around pitches, the installation of ‘brush stations’ to ensure granules are removed from footwear, and the use of filters to stop infill from entering drains.
One measure would see football boots fitted with an inbuilt sock that clings tightly to the ankle, preventing granules from ending up inside the boot and transported elsewhere.
According to the ECHA, 42,000 tonnes of microplastics end up in the environment annually, of which 16,000 tonnes come from granular infill used in artificial pitches. Around 51,000 sports pitches in the EU are covered with synthetic turf.
Cork or hemp may be used as an alternative to rubber granules but come with a much higher price tag. The European football association UEFA called the materials “neither feasible nor sustainable” due to their costs.
The European Tyre & Rubber Manufacturers’ Association (ETRMA) argue that rubber infill dispersion can be “effectively addressed through risk management measures”.
“Furthermore, the spread that can occur is limited to the vicinity of the fields and is easily avoided and cleaned up if it occurs due to human interventions,” Fazilet Cinaralp, secretary general of ETRMA, told EURACTIV.
The ETRMA secretary general also pointed out that a study conducted by the ECHA’s Risk Assessment Committee found AstroTurf pitches with rubber infill posed no health risk to players, which was in line with the findings of independent studies commissioned by industry.
In March 2021, the ECHA published its final recommendations, including the opinions of its risk assessment and socio-economic analysis committees. The European Commission will use the recommendations to propose binding restrictions under the REACH regulation, which governs chemical usage in the EU.
Any restrictions on rubber infill put forward by the EU executive will need to be agreed by EU countries in the Council and legislators in the European Parliament before entering law.
EuRIC has called on the European Commission to support the continued use of rubber granules, demanding that the use of infill for artificial pitches be “regarded as a strategic objective of the new Circular Economy Package”.
“The use of granulated rubber as infill material in sport fields is among, if not the, most sustainable option for proper end-of-life tyre management,” Alejandro Navazas, a scientific officer with EuRIC, told EURACTIV.
“If a ban would take place, this would very likely send 50 million units of end-of-life tyres for incineration, stockpiling or illegal landfilling which, from an environmental standpoint, would be the worst option, and on top, the least circular.”
Navazas said that the industry has “nothing to hide” and is trying to “ensure that the right balance is struck”. He argued that the best option to prevent microplastic release while preserving the “substantial environmental benefits” of tyre recycling is to opt for standardised risk-management measures.
“The other option on the table, namely a fully-fledged ban, would simply create a much bigger environmental problem, setting aside the socioeconomic ones as tyre recycling is a local and job-intensive generator industry,” he added.
Poul Steen Rasmussen, president of EuRIC’s mechanical tyre recycling branch, said in a statement that processing tyres into rubber is the “most climate-efficient” option.
“For each tonne of end-of-life tyres recycled as infill for artificial turf pitches the climate is spared 700 kg of CO2 when compared with co-incineration,” he said.
However, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a body representing green NGOs, criticised the industry’s claims that converting tyres to rubber infill is circular, saying it results in “direct leakages of hazardous substances into the environment”.
“Microplastic infill are a symptom of a wider problem of tyre disposal that is not dealt with by using rubber crumb on pitches,” Élise Vitali, a chemicals expert with EEB, told EURACTIV. “Such a model can reasonably not be considered as sustainable,” she added.
Greens MEP Jutta Paulus argues that the choice between turning tyres into rubber infill or incinerating them shows that more research is required to develop tyres that can be part of a closed loop.
“We have very intelligent and innovative chemists out there, and they should try to develop materials that actually can be recycled. We shouldn’t take the current situation as given for the next decade,” Paulus told EURACTIV.
“If you set a clear deadline and you provide the necessary time, then innovation will come,” she added.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]