"One man's waste is another man's treasure" is a familiar idiom, the adage being that, what one person regards as utterly disposable and worthless is, in fact, of significant value in the mind of another. It is the principle on which the majority of recycling that our society undertakes is based and has created multi-million pound industries as well as contributing to the wellbeing of our environment
When a Chairman of Greens at a small South Wales Valleys Golf Club was approached by a female member who explained that the High School in Cardiff, for which she worked as a bursar, was about to relay its artificial grass pitch and was actively looking for an outlet for the old pitch, the adage could not have proven more true.
The old artificial grass pitch was of no value to the school or indeed to the contractor that would otherwise have put the 'waste' into landfill, but it was being offered to willing takers who may find a possible use for it. On giving it further thought, the Chairman of Greens accepted the offer and planned on using it for pathways, buggy tracks, slip and high wear areas and so on. What wasn't foreseen at the time was the significance that one decision, the seizing of an opportunity, would have on his own and others lives, and the journey that has taken place since that day.
The chairman of greens was Rhydian Lewis, who went on to become the co-founder and Managing Director of Envirosports Ltd and, more recently, founded a successor company Durabunker Ltd; both companies successfully utilising waste material to develop a bunker solution that is revolutionising bunker construction and has now literally reached the other side of the world.
Rhydian commented; "Life is made up of moments which sometimes have a seismic influence on our journeys; we don't always see those moments as significant but, in hindsight, it is very apparent just how life changing they can be."
Following the delivery of the 'waste' material, it became very apparent to Rhydian that he had bitten off a little more than he and the club could chew and, as the reality began to dawn, there was a growing concern at exactly how the club would utilise the quantity of material that had been dropped on their front door.
"As the artics kept coming and the rolls kept piling up higher, I almost felt a bit queasy. By the end of it, there was an artificial grass mountain taking up half the car park and I could already feel the knives in my back! I quickly decided we needed a brainstorming session to come up with ideas as to how to use the material and what we could do with it all. I suggested the idea of lining bunkers with it, but the material was so difficult to handle it proved incredibly time consuming. We were able to devise a system of removing the majority of sand from the grass, making it easier to handle and we successfully installed some pathways and bunker liners which subsequently performed very well."
"It was some time later that it was suggested that it may be possible to utilise the material to build a revetted bunker face. The idea was discussed and those involved felt it was worth exploring, so we decided to build a very primitive model in the greenkeeping shed."
"Subsequently, we decided to undertake the redevelopment of one of our par 3s and part of the design involved building a new bunker into a raised bank, a perfect testing ground for the new idea. I managed to convince the executive committee that it was worth trialling and, some time later, we undertook the construction of the first synthetic bunker face."
It was from these somewhat humble beginnings that the product Rhydian's company has now rebranded as Durabunker was born. The principle of recycling waste synthetic grass to build durable bunker faces and edges is one which has taken some time to promote, but it instantly resonated with WRAP Cymru, a non-profit company funded by governments in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Rhydian continued; "The aim of the Welsh Government is to achieve zero waste by 2050; they recognise the benefits that recycling can have, not only on our environment but on our economy and wellbeing. One of their key objectives is to work with companies to increase recycled content in their products and, as such, they were very interested in supporting the product in its early stages, offering us financial assistance to fund the IP that we obtained in relation to the product and help with early business development and marketing."
"Durabunker is made from 100% recycled product, we only use sand-filled artificial grass and, although we did experiment with 3G and 4G pitches, we decided that, due to various physical properties inherent in the newer grasses, they were not suitable to ensure the integrity and stability that we require for the product. As it happens, with the growing concern and negative press around rubber infill it has been a wise decision!"
"It is good, therefore, to have an opportunity to redress the balance and put a positive spin on the use of synthetic grass. The 2G grasses that we use are entirely free of rubber crumb and are having an entirely beneficial impact on golf courses and greenkeeping teams, both here in the UK and across the world. We directly upcycle used artificial grass, ensuring that it is handled and processed effectively at our warehouses, and is entirely fit for purpose when it arrives at our client's sites. The cost to us is in the transport, handling and processing of the material; anyone who has even attempted to work with sand-filled artificial grass will relate to the struggles we have had, particularly in the early days when we had little or no machinery and were attempting to process the material by hand!"
Fortunately, for Rhydian and his company, times have changed; all processing of material is now carried out using customised machinery and quality of materials have improved dramatically as a result. Over time, more and more courses from many different countries and continents have begun to grasp the multiple benefits the method offers. The product has now reached as far afield as Australia and has recently appeared at the LPGA Tour Championships, the ladies version of the FedEx Cup and also on the PGA Tour at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida.
"The journey our company and the product itself has made is nothing short of remarkable. There have been bumps along the way, none more so than the break-up of the original company that brought the product to market, but we've managed to come out the other side and continue to grow the product under our new brand name, into new markets, all the while continually refining and improving it."
The maintenance and cost savings the product brings have had a positive impact on their clients, many of whom were sceptical about the idea. The significant point to make, according to Rhydian, is that the synthetic material does not form any part of the playing surface and nor will it ever do so. Furthermore, he argues that, almost to a man, nobody has ever suspected that the synthetic bunker edges are anything but natural.
"One of our primary barriers to sale is the preconceived idea held by many industry professionals; that synthetic grass just does not belong on a golf course. I really do empathise with this viewpoint. I've played golf since the age of three and grown up in and around the game, so understand the sentiment entirely. I would go as far as saying I would probably have stood in the same camp had you tried to sell me this product ten years ago. However, I know just how natural it looks, I know how much time, money and manpower it saves and have seen the product weather and grow to look more and more natural over time."
"I have also seen, many times, that those who once stood opposed to the principle of synthetics on a golf course have, on seeing our product for the first time, been staggered by how natural it looks and have experienced a 'Road to Damascus' type epiphany, becoming clients of ours very shortly afterwards!"
"Of course, there are those who will never be in favour and that is completely understandable and entirely their prerogative. I guess the one thing that I would say to them is come and take a look, and have a chat with your peers who have used the product to hear what benefits it has brought to their maintenance practices and their golf courses as a whole.
I can list many course managers and head greenkeepers who were very sceptical about the product, one or two of whom shall remain nameless, and saw it tantamount to golfing sacrilege to install 'synthetic bunkers'. Now they sing the praises of the product, not only due to the huge reduction in maintenance and cost savings but for aesthetic reasons also."
One such Course Manager is Scott Gibson of St Enodoc, a highly regarded and very traditional golf course. "There were sceptics amongst us for sure, but the maintenance savings we have gained from installing the system are significant. We have consistently had to rebuild our revetted faces on a regular basis at St Enodoc. To have a product come along that takes that labour away, and requires little or no maintenance to keep it looking good, is a revelation. The vast majority of members had no idea the first Durabunker we built on the Church Course was, in fact, synthetic, so natural does it look."
"I would suggest that sustainable bunker construction will be of benefit to any course manager and, although we are a traditional links course, the spin off for inland courses is that shallower revetted edges can be built in this way, and I know that a number of courses have also incorporated a liner in addition to synthetic edges to offer a complete solution."
"Maintenance savings from edging work alone would be appealing for most courses, having the added benefit of bunker shapes not changing or moving ever closer to greens is also a very positive benefit of building bunkers in this way. The fact that all material used is recycled is the cherry on the cake as far as I'm concerned."
The 100 million dollar question, of course, is how does the return on investment stack up? This is the key; can a recycled product which flies against traditional values and long held principles win the economic argument as well as the fundamental debate around natural vs synthetic? The fanciful thought of recycling waste material, that would otherwise be put to landfill, to build bunkers edges that are durable, long-lasting and maintenance free, is one thing, but can they really be affordable? Are they truly sustainable? Will they produce a return on investment?
One of Durabunker's recent clients from the USA, Fieldstone Golf Club in Philadelphia certainly think so. Course Manager Damon DiGiorgio commented; "We were sceptical at first, but once pricing was established, I did a financial analysis of Durabunker vs a standard natural grass sloped bunker. While initial costs are higher, cost of maintenance is greatly reduced due to zero mowing, zero fertilising, zero pesticide applications, zero resodding and repair, zero watering, almost zero edging and so on. Having studied the numbers, we are confident our return on investment will be met within a matter of years."
Rhydian concludes; "I think it's true to say that, due to some of the high profile courses in our portfolio, there is a danger that the average golf club assumes that this product is only affordable for these high end clubs. The fact of the matter is we have built at council run public courses, such as City of Wakefield Golf Club, and many less celebrated venues, such as North Manchester Golf Club and Royston Golf Club, who were incidentally the first golf club to ever invest in multiple synthetic bunkers. We are as proud of our association with these courses as any and, in some ways, take greater satisfaction that they are benefitting from the product."
"The variety of courses we have worked with shows that the system is certainly affordable for the vast majority of golf clubs who have a longer term vision for their course and finances. We have also worked hard to pass on cost savings to our clients' which have been a result of improved efficiency in production and a desire to see the product being accessible to most every club out there."
"The one exception is my home club Maesteg GC, who could not afford to invest in the product at any sort of level. Considering that it was the birthplace of the product and they have supported our journey the whole way, they did get a one off deal when they recently rebuilt several bunkers. Sometimes it's good to give a little back!!"