Ice rinks are an important fixture of winter sports, whether for ice hockey, speed skating, curling, ice dancing or figure skating. But with growing concerns about global warming, water scarcity and our planet’s climate crisis, even the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the National Hockey League (NHL) have been considering the environmental issues related to coordinating ice sports events and ensuring energy consumption and rink-operating costs are feasible. As a result, there is now a movement towards utilizing synthetic ice on ice rinks.

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The first historical mention of a skating club’s founding was in 1642 in Edinburgh, Scotland. As skating clubs grew, they inspired inventors to create artificial ice surfaces, so the rink would not be at the whim of the weather. By 1843, a Punch magazine article featured the first artificial ice rink, “not of frozen water but of a slush of chemicals including hog’s lard and melted sulphur, which smelled abominably.” That was followed by the growing popularity of ice hockey from the 1880s onward, which increased the demand for more rink construction. When the 1890s rolled around, the rush to patent ice rink surfaces began and has not abated since.

Related: 5 sustainable activities to make the most of a winter wonderland

Rinks have long required both ice-making technical equipment and ice maintenance measures. Unfortunately, contemporary ice-making and maintenance technologies consume large amounts of energy and produce refrigerant gases that cause pollution, making them environmentally harmful. During the most recent determination of the NHL’s total carbon footprint, it was estimated to emit 530,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases, an amount rivaling the yearly emissions from 110,000 cars, says the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Which refrigerant gases are linked to present-day ice rinks? The main refrigerants associated with most ice-making equipment include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), hydrocarbons, ammonia and carbon dioxide. CFCs and HCFCs are synthetic gases attributed to ozone layer destruction. HFCs heighten the greenhouse effect, while carbon dioxide similarly intensifies global warming. Plus, ammonia, when inhaled, aggressively causes irreversible respiratory damage. And hydrocarbons, like propane and isobutane, are highly combustible, often exacerbating smog formation. Hence, each of these gases adversely affects the environment. 

an image of the horizon at sunset with factories in the background producing clouds of exhaust

Of course, as ice rink technology advances, many refrigerants are under a phase-out schedule, especially in Canada, due to the Montreal Protocol terms. Additionally, Canadian Consulting Engineer magazine reported: “Since 2010, no new HCFCs equipment have been manufactured in Canada or imported,” though extant ones are still in use today.

Even with ammonia and carbon dioxide as the main refrigerants of choice for the majority of today’s ice rinks, they still have their attendant issues as well. For example, whereas ammonia may be a primary refrigerant, it is often utilized concurrently with brine to keep the rinks cold. The brine entails that this secondary fluid is high in salinity, having had salt added to boost its cooling properties. This highly saline secondary fluid, if leaked, can pose serious environmental damage.

Meanwhile, despite “some rinks add[ing] ordinary salt to the water to keep them from freezing,” Wondergy documents, “most modern rinks now add ethylene glycol.” Ethylene glycol is a type of antifreeze, and it is highly toxic. Again, its leakage would be harmful to the environment, poisoning living organisms, their habitats and ecosystems.

Other negative impacts of ice rinks include greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide. For instance, CO2Meter reported that to shift away from coolants like HFCs and other fluorinated gases, some ice rinks have been using carbon dioxide-based refrigeration systems as their primary refrigerant. Carbon dioxide is a better alternative, though its use still contributes to global warming.

Likewise, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has cataloged that other noxious emissions, such as high nitrogen dioxide levels and carbon monoxide, are being released by indoor ice rinks due to ice resurfacers, such as Zamboni rink vehicles. The EPA website states, “In enclosed ice arenas, a primary source of indoor air concerns is the release of combustion pollutants such as carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM) into the indoor air from the exhaust of fuel-fired ice resurfacers.”

an up-close image of a zamboni smoothing ice

This assertion is supported by an Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) study, which shares that “nearly 40% of the rinks surveyed worldwide could be exceeding the World Health Organization’s 1-hour exposure guideline value for nitrogen dioxide in indoor air, with higher percentages of rinks exceeding this value in the US (55%) and Canada (46%). High nitrogen dioxide levels have been associated with respiratory problems such as severe coughs, chest pain and pulmonary edema.”

Additionally, the same EDF study addresses carbon monoxide risks from ice rinks, citing that “High carbon monoxide levels can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and impaired performance. At the levels of carbon monoxide typically found in indoor rinks, fast breathing from skating or hockey can produce adverse health effects.”

The combination of ice-making, ice-maintenance and ice-resurfacing factors pose harmful health consequences for those who frequent ice arenas and rinks. For these reasons, ice arenas and rinks are turning to synthetic ice as an alternative.

Xtraice, a company known for building and distributing synthetic ice for rinks, says that synthetic ice’s significant advantages are that it doesn’t use water and thus doesn’t waste energy on ice-making or ice-maintenance. Rather, it eliminates the cost of water and electricity that traditional ice rinks contend with. Besides, a synthetic ice rink can be used 24/7 without having to be re-surfaced in the same way real ice does. Xtraice explains further that synthetic ice rinks “are cleaner and do not require big noisy generators and best of all, they do not emit CO2 into the atmosphere.”

people skating in an ice rink with a building and Christmas tree in the background

What’s the catch? Synthetic ice is mainly composed of high-density polyethylene panels. Polyethylene is the most common plastic on the market.

Critics of plastic ice worry about the environmental implications of the microplastics that could be released as skates erode the synthetic ice surface and create shavings and abrasions, which, when brushed or cleaned off of the rink, would likely be dumped in the refuse bin. From there, they could find their way into waterways and oceans, polluting the environment.

Accordingly, ice rinks can be viewed as a sustainability conundrum, at least for the time being. Traditional ice rinks have noise, energy waste and pollution costs. And their alternative, the synthetic ice rink, while resolving those issues, still generate other environmental concerns surrounding microplastic and plastic detriments. Only time will tell how the ice rink will evolve to become more eco-friendly.

Via Xtraice and New York Times

Images via Jimmy Chan, Suzy Hazelwood, Pixabay, and Lina Kivaka