Rubber

When I went to primary school, I was part of the football team in my village, like many boys in my class. Unfortunately my football career ended pretty soon due to a lack of talent. We played on a football field just outside the village, which belonged to a local farmer. His young stock often grazed in the field during weekdays. Now and then this resulted in a rather late removal of the cattle just before a match. In other words, you would probably get your shoes dirty with some cow dung. The grass surface wasn’t completely level and stable either, which led to unexpected bouncy behaviour of the ball. Needless to say that most of the time our opponents were not amused. But looking back it was nature in its purest form.

In any case this field was much more environmentally friendly than the rubber granulates used to make artificial grass for football and others sports fields, which is more commonly used these days. The use of rubber granulates, made of used car tyres, leads to a higher playability of the field. Unfortunately the granulates contain residues of dangerous substances such as PAH’s , heavy metals and plasticisers. Apart from the potential risks and whether these are admissible or not and the fact that there is no knowledge of the long-term effects, it seems a bad idea to me anyway. It is a perfect example of down cycling or to be more precise fake recycling. An artificial football field contains 22.000 kilo granulate and needs to be supplemented each year. After several years it must be replaced completely. The question is, what happens to all this material?

Everyone who has played on an artificial field or has children that do, knows that these small granulates get into your clothes and shoes and travel into your home. As a result the material is gradually spreading into the environment, creating a diffuse pollution, just like the plastic granules in toothpaste that pass our water treatment plants into the open water without a chance of ever being recovered.

What strikes me as odd is that the companies that install these fields with the down cycled car tyres, are the same companies that work on soil remediation and improving the environment in our country. Are their principles just as flexible as the rubber they use? I suggest that the people working for the departments that are responsible for installing these fields start talking to their colleagues that are experts in Cradle-to-Cradle and life cycle analysis, and afterwards speak to their sustainability preaching boards, explaining to them what they are doing. I totally understand that it is financially lucrative to reuse contaminated waste as marketable material. It is an example of a pure economical earning model: it’s very effective but not very ethical. A model, containing three P’s only for profit. But what happened to the P’s for people and planet? I think it’s time to fine these types of earning models and replace them with socially responsible business models, in which next to economical profit, people’s wellbeing and environmental protection are also taking in to account.

By the way, from within professional football circles, there is also some opposition to artificial football fields. Not so much because of health risks, but because apparently artificial grass creates a different game and subsequently different players, through which we run the risk of falling behind in the international competition. This is yet another perfect reason to stop installing these fields as soon as possible. There’s just one thing that I keep asking myself. Could my hidden talent for football perhaps have benefitted from playing on an artificial football field?

Sytze Keuning (keuning@bioclearearth.nl)

Published in the journal Bodem.