Murfitt Industries from Lakenheath working to allay safety fears about 3G artificial pitches
- Credit: Archant
Located on the outskirts of Lakenheath in Suffolk, Murfitts Industries is a leading recycler of car and bike tyres, reclaiming and recycling an incredible 11 million each year.
With a background in the logistics sector, founder Mark Murfitt started the business 16 years ago after seeing an opportunity.
“There are very few things that you throw away when you have only used 15% of it,” he said.
“Tyres are made of a high-grade material and I thought there must be something better to do than put them into landfill.”
Today, Murfitts completely recovers all the component materials found in tyres, such as the steel and fibre threads, and of course, the rubber.
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The recycled rubber has numerous applications - it is included in carpet underlay, re-purposed to make mats and even used in the creation of the latest in anti-terrorist barriers.
The rubber is also broken down to make rubber crumb – a crucial ingredient in modern 3G artificial sports pitches where it is used as an infill to keep the artificial grass fibres upright and give the pitch the playing characteristics of natural grass. Around 120 tonnes of these rubber granules are used in an average 3G pitch and Murfitts exports this product to over 50 countries around the world.
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But in recent years, concerns have been raised about the safety of rubber crumb, which critics say contains potentially dangerous heavy metals and chemicals - so-called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) - which are used in the making of tyres and exposed when broken down into granules.
In the Netherlands the issue has become well-known and as a precaution some football clubs have decided to ban artificial grass pitches for the time being, or stop young footballers from using them.
In the UK, a high-profile case involving the teenage goalkeeper son of the former chief executive of NHS Cumbria, who developed Hodgkins Lymphoma, led to fears that frequent contact with the granules might be a factor in causing certain types of cancer..
Calls have been made to tighten European REACH regulations that cover the use of chemical substances, and their potential impacts on both human health and the environment.
Research and development
Working in the industry Mark has been aware of these concerns for a number of years - and is now at the cutting edge of finding a solution.
He said: “These reports set me thinking - people have concerns, so let’s try and deal with them. How do we make rubber infill safe?”
This was an easy question to ask, but the answer was 18 months in the making and eventually would involve an investment of over £1 million in research and development as well as new equipment.
Working with consultants from the rubber compounding industry, the outcome for Murfitts has been the development a new product called PRO-gran, which involves coating the rubber granule with a polymer layer to ensure no potentially harmful chemicals can be released.
Mark says he got the idea from studying the batteries in mobile phones, which contain substances such as cadmium, zinc and other heavy metals but are enclosed in a protective casing.
A key part of developing PRO-gran was the testing phase, he says.
“The PRO-gran crumb has the same level of security as a baby’s teething ring,” Mark continued.
“We tested it beyond the destruction of the carpet [artificial pitch] itself. It has done the equivalent of 10 to 15 years of use.
“We created PRO-gran to exceed REACH’s requirements, so clubs can future-proof their investments. This means that should current legislation change and become more stringent, customers who have installed PRO-gran can be safe in the knowledge that their pitch can still be used and that the infill is safe.”
So far in the UK PRO-gran crumb, which can be produced in green and brown versions, has been spread on artificial pitches used by Cirencester Football Club and Shelford Rugby Club near Cambridge, but since its official launch in November Mark has clocked up the air miles talking to interested parties in locations such as Dubai and Japan.
He says he is seeing demand from potential clients who want to install new pitches, as well as those considering replacing their current infill with Murfitts’ new product.
Mark continued: “If I’m a local authority, leisure operator or university planning to spend £3/4m on an artificial sports pitch, why would I put in infill that in a short time could potentially be banned? For a 3 to 4% uplift in the cost of the pitch as a whole, they can use something that is future-proof.”
He added: “Artificial pitches are great, they can be used 365 days a year and they can be become community hubs.
“To a certain extent, the development of PRO-gran is about encouraging participation. The government and the NHS want young people to take part in sport because we have a ticking time bomb in terms of obesity but because of concerns about the safety of artificial pitches some parents are keeping their children away.”