The Latest on Synthetic Fields

March 28, 2024, Department, by Mary Helen Sprecher

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Sports fields have come a long way since someone threw down a handful of seed, watered the ground and, in due course, welcomed teams onto the grass. Grass is still a respected surface, but today synthetic turf is providing the opportunity for more teams to play more games across the same field, often year-round. The synthetic turf market is evolving, but at the same time, turf has come under scrutiny for a variety of reasons. Here are a few answers to questions park officials frequently ask.

Is synthetic turf popular for park use?

“We’re seeing that synthetic turf has gained popularity in parks and high schools for multiuse fields,” says Michael Allen of Shaw Sports Turf. “Many schools and recreation departments appreciate the durability, all-weather usability and the consistency of the playing surface that synthetic turf offers.”

I keep hearing about PFAS. What are they? Are they in synthetic fields?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are chemicals found in a variety of household products. Because they do not biodegrade, PFAS have become known as “forever chemicals.” Some regulatory agencies are considering banning PFAS as a whole; however, research on their impact on health and the environment is ongoing. PFAS at low concentrations are difficult to measure, and the only current test methods being used are specific to drinking water; the EPA also is evaluating test methods for soil.

While PFAS is often brought up in conjunction with synthetic turf, it is worth noting that what have been identified as “PFAS of concern” have never been used in the production of synthetic turf. Additionally, there is currently no standardized test that can measure PFAS in turf.

In the past, fluoropolymer processing aids were used in producing some turf fibers. However, manufacturers are phasing out these aids and have committed to discontinuing the use of PFAS in turf as of this year. It is important to note that any product, turf included, can be contaminated with PFAS as a result of continued environmental exposure. In fact, in a study conducted in Massachusetts, when outdoor athletic fields were examined, more PFAS were found in the soil of natural fields than were discovered in synthetic fields.

Are synthetic fields safe?

Multiple studies have been conducted; none showed a link between synthetic turf and long-term health problems.

Synthetic fields are good only for a certain duration; can they be recycled after that?

The recycling of synthetic fields is not as straightforward as the process of recycling a soda can. Fields have various components, including the carpet itself and the infill (the material, such as crumb rubber, used to provide cushioning and make the fibers stand straight), as well as the foundation, which may be a hard surface (concrete or asphalt), shock pad (e-layer, foam tiles or rolls, preformed roll-out rubber, tiles or drainage panels), loose stone or consolidated stone aggregate, and a drainage system. The ability of the field to be “recycled” depends upon the amount of original material that can be reused.

Some industry companies specialize in the reuse of field components and will separate the infill from the carpet with the intention of reusing the infill in the new field. It is possible that other components of the field can be downcycled.

While the cost of removing an old field surface and placing it in a landfill is admittedly lower than many of the new processes on the market, field owners often are answerable to city and state agencies that want to know what happens to the surface after it reaches the end of its useful life.

The full recycling of turf (known as a circular system) is still in its infancy, but it does exist. The technology for the recycling of all turf components, previously found only in Europe, has arrived stateside. The process is complicated because three primary polymers exist within a typical turf product: polyethylene, polypropylene and polyurethane.

According to the website of Re-Match Turf Recycling, the U.S. company that is doing this recycling work, a quick breakdown of the process is as follows: The recycling company will gather field surfaces that have met the end of their useful life and move them to a factory for shredding. The shredded materials then move to another state for further reprocessing, then are transferred to an advanced recycling facility where they are broken down into raw materials that can be used to make new products with quality and performance identical to those of virgin raw materials.

The acceptance of turf recycling will be driven by a number of factors: cost, local availability (trucking fees can be expensive if material needs to be transported long distances), consumer awareness of the technology and demand for the products made from the recycled materials.

“Repurposing is a great idea,” says John Schedler of Baraka Sport, “but sometimes, it’s not as easy to accomplish as we’d like.”

Are all fields still made with crumb rubber infill?

While crumb rubber is still a popular choice, other options exist. These include:

  • Coated SBR crumb rubber
  • Coconut fiber
  • Cork combination infill
  • Olive pits
  • Organic (cork-based)
  • Organic (fiber-based)
  • Quartz core infill
  • TPE (thermoplastic elastomer)
  • Recycled turf/TPE
  • Shoe rubber
  • Volcanic ash (Clinoptilolite zeolite)
  • Walnut shells
  • Wood

Ask a qualified sports field builder about the options available; remember that the right choice for any field will depend upon factors including price, availability, shipping costs, weather/geography, planned usage and more.

“Being aware of the latest developments in turf systems, advanced infill materials and sustainable practices can help officials make informed decisions when considering synthetic turf in their facilities,” notes Allen.

Schedler adds that the best information comes from experienced field contractors. “Park and rec officials should always have someone on their team who can help guide them through the process. Having an independent professional or expert help to advise is always recommended. Google experts and vendor sales or marketing aren’t advised and, in many cases, can be misleading.”

SEE ALSO: Synthetic Turf: The World’s Fastest-Growing Play Surface, Kevin Kinsley, Parks & Recreation, May 2020, Vol. 55, Iss. 5.

Mary Helen Sprecher is Technical Writer at American Sports Builders Association.