You put out your recycling every week. You compost your yard clippings. And when you go to work, you are responsible for a great synthetic field that you are proud to say doesn’t need fertilizer, pesticides or mowing.

Yep, you’re pretty green, all right.

Until you realize it’s getting to be time to replace that synthetic field. Then the “green” suddenly feels like the inexperienced and unknowledgeable kind of green – the wrong kind of green. And when you look at the possibility of a whole new field – well, it offends your sense of ecology.

Mark Heinlein of Turf Reclamation Solutions (TRS) in Cincinnati, Ohio, shares your concern. For him, old fields are a real and growing problem.

“By 2016, we will see about 1,000 fields reaching their end of life every year,” he notes. “That’s an unbelievable number, when you think about it. The average field is about 80,000 square feet. Multiply that by 1,000 fields per year, and you have 80 million square feet of turf – every single year. Putting that much material into a landfill is just an unacceptable practice from a sustainability standpoint.”

It’s no wonder, then, that the industry is stepping up its practices for reuse and reclamation of materials. But when it comes to sustainability of synthetic fields, what is possible theoretically, what is possible realistically and what is practical may be different things for the field owner and manager.


On the surface

For example, while many schools and institutions have the philanthropic notion of donating their old synthetic turf surface to an institution or organization that can’t afford a new one, Heinlein says it isn’t practical – or even possible. Many fields, by the time they are getting ready to be replaced, have little, if any, life expectancy. Trying to transfer a degrading carpet is simply kicking the can down the road, and leaves the recipient (who may already be strapped for finances) with a problem surface they will have to address in a relatively short time. Unfortunately, not all that charitable, when you think about it.

But as the industry continues to evolve, expect more options to be available to the field owner who wants to see that turf surface be repurposed. Technology is becoming available to create new materials with that old carpet. And, while the result would not be a new field, it’s not landing in the dump, either.

“Old carpets can be processed and pelletized into feedstock for molded plastic parts, such as pallets and field underlayments,” says Heinlein. “We have a proven process for this, but, right now, cost is a deterrent.”

With greater demand comes greater accessibility to such technology, though, so consumers can expect to see these processes become more readily available and affordable. Ultimately, though, two facts remain: All synthetic turf fields wear out, and there are more synthetic fields in use than ever before. Manufacturers know they are responsible for creating a product that is recyclable without the prohibitive expense.

As a result, says Heinlein, the current turf carpets, which are made of a mix of polymers (leading to a more difficult and expensive recycling process) are giving way to surfaces made with single polymer materials that can be recycled more easily.

Synthetic turf rolling, being done by Turf Reclamation Surfaces, pictured here at the University of Cincinnati soccer fields.

On the inside

But, if changes regarding turf surfaces pertain to the future, other aspects of sustainability are very much available in the here and now.

Chopped and processed turf.

Reusing the current infill in conjunction with a new surface is a popular option for those who are contemplating options for their aging turf field. Field owners save money by not having to purchase new infill, and have the added satisfaction of knowing that part of their field will be reused.

However, cautions Heinlein, infill has undergone changes over the years. In the early days of synthetic field construction, infill materials (generally sand and rubber) did not meet tight specifications or quality requirements. Today’s materials have more information on sizing of sand and rubber particles and even on the sources of these materials. If you will be working with a different contractor from the one who originally installed the field, provide all background information regarding the field, including the year it was installed, the brand – and, of course, any information that might be available concerning the infill.

Increasingly, contractors are being asked to answer more complex questions about the sustainability of the sports facilities they are installing – and years later, the ways components of those same facilities can be redirected to a new facility or some destination more productive than a landfill. All field builders must be prepared to understand, and be ready to respond to, owners’ concerns.