Is Jury Still Out on Recyclable Synthetic Turf?

The year 2010 saw the first synthetic turf field to be fully recycled.

The year 2010 saw the first synthetic turf field to be fully recycled. A year later, Synthetic Turf Council president Rick Doyle is promising "significant advances" in the coming months regarding turf's recyclability - a term that turns up no results when typed into the search engines on the websites belonging to the STC or the upstart Synthetic Turf Association.

One could say that the jury is still out. To date, FieldTurf (which pulled off last year's first of removing and recycling the field at the University of Arkansas' War Memorial Stadium and replacing it with a FieldTurf surface) is the only manufacturer recycling its fields, with the ability to turn used materials into school bags, batting cage surfaces, top-dressing for natural grass, tote bags, T-shirts and coasters, according to Darren Gill, FieldTurf's vice president of global marketing.

"Recycling has been one of our major initiatives over the past 18 months," Gill says. "We take our leadership role in the industry seriously and wanted to make sure that we addressed the growing concern that turf products had to be landfilled after their useful life. Simply put, this is not an acceptable alternative for FieldTurf."

FieldTurf says its fields are 100 percent recyclable. Mondo, by contrast, avoids a blanket statement, saying MondoTurf's "thermo-bonded" backing is 100 percent recyclable, while its Ecofill infill is 95 percent recyclable. But the key measure in a field's green profile is reusability more than recyclability, according to Scott Macrury, Mondo's director of sales - as made possible, in Mondo's case, by the company's use of thermoplastic elastomers (TPE) to make Ecofill, and polyester and polyethylene rather than non-recyclable polyurethane in the backing.

"The use of reusable but non-recyclable materials in the production of artificial turf, such as reground tires and polyurethane, has hampered the recyclability of this type of sports surface," Macrury says. "While most manufacturers have spent a lot of money and resources in the R&D of recycling of classic artificial turf elements, Mondo has developed new alternate products. The STC is stating that there will be new developments in the recycling of artificial turf soon, not because of new developments in the old methodologies, but because of the advent of alternate products in the artificial turf industry such as Ecofill and thermo-bonded backing."

John Aten, Regupol America's vice president of sales and marketing, similarly says his company's Abzorb shock padding, which is made from 100 percent post-consumer tire rubber, can be reused after the top layers of synthetic turf have worn out. However, at the present time, he adds, the concept is largely theoretical.

"Our pad, underneath a turf field, is a shock pad used really as an insurance policy," he says. "As fields start to get older and their shock-absorbing qualities degrade, the pad adds an extra level of comfort to ensure that you're meeting all the specifications of ASTM International for shock attenuation. They are very easy to reclaim. We've had pads in place that are 20-plus years old and have been reused; they test out because their properties are not gone. It doesn't happen often, but it certainly is possible."

GeoTurf, the U.S. branch of Limonta Sport USA, boasts both recyclable and reusable elements. The company's website says that its turf's backing and fibers are made with "thermoplastic, polyethylene, polypropylene and polyurethane turf materials" that are "100% recyclable for use in countless plastic-molded consumer products including automobiles, furniture, toys and electronics." At the same time, this first supplier of organic infill's claim of 100 percent recyclability depends on the coconut fiber and post-industrial cork infill being reused as mulch or top-dressing.

"All they have to do, literally, is take it out of the field and move it over to the surrounding grass fields," says Domenic Carapella, managing director of GeoTurf USA.

With a mountain of testing having put to rest lingering doubts over the safety of synthetic turf, analysis of synthetic turf has turned to sustainability. Is there more innovation to come regarding environmentally friendly methods and materials? Can even more of a field's materials be recycled?

A Synthetic Turf Council task force has spent much of the first part of 2011 taking inventory of synthetic fields in the U.S., Doyle reports, looking specifically at recyclability and reuse.

"There's more work to be done," Doyle says. "There will be some significant advances that will enable field owners to recycle their entire field without incurring a lot of costs of transportation. The best scenario would be to turn an old field into the materials for new fields."

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