As more and more installations of artificial turf reach the end of life, disposal becomes a big issue. It seems the human race habitually puts innovations to use without thinking through all the consequences.
Fortunately, industry, sports organizations, and governments have studied the environmental impact of artificial turf for some years now. Recycling artificial turf is possible, but not yet common.
Manufacturers of artificial turf claim that their product saves billions of gallons of water every year. Grass turf on the same area would also require millions of pounds of fertilizers and pesticides. The equipment that applies it would spew hundreds of thousands of pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A single football field keeps between 18,000 and 20,000 worn car tires out of landfills.
But when it’s time to rip it up, what becomes of it?
What is artificial turf?
Artificial turf is supposed to look like grass. It has millions of individual blades embedded in an artificial soil called infill. It has various other layers between the infill and the natural subgrade. These include a backing layer, perhaps a shock pad, a leveling layer, and a drainage system.
A stabilizing infill keeps the blades upright during use. On top of that, a performance infill provides impact resistance to minimize injury to the athletes.
Organic alternatives to synthetic polymers exist for infill, but they may have their own environmental problems. Food crops and non-food crops can compete for space, for example. Extending agricultural land to make room for both decreases biodiversity. Many European soccer fields, however, use cork, which requires only removal of the bark from certain trees.
Manufacturing artificial turf combines a variety of polymers. How many things can you think of that start with “poly”? Polystyrene, polyethylene, polyurethane, polypropylene—artificial turf uses all of these and more. It also uses crumb rubber (recycled from old tires) and sand. Sometimes it uses coated sand instead of natural sand. That is, with each grain of sand enclosed in some kind of acrylic or elastomer.
End of life for artificial turf
After about ten years, artificial turf comes to the end of its useful life and must be replaced. Hundreds of installations reach end of life every year. Consider that the typical sports field is about 80,000 square feet. The turf and infill together weigh about 220 tons.
The US alone has thousands of fields with artificial turf. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has certified artificial turf on more than 3,000 soccer pitches in 149 countries since 2006. Three out of four are in Europe, but more countries than not on every continent except Antarctica have at least a few. FIFA estimates that its certification covers less than 10% of all soccer fields that use artificial turf.
Besides sports fields, artificial turf has plenty of other uses: landscaping, playgrounds, median strips, and more.
Manufacturers typically claim that their products are recyclable, but FIFA notes that no manufacturer has played an active role in promoting recycling. But at least some of them have demonstrated the feasibility of recycling artificial turf.
A company called FieldTurf installed artificial turf at the University of Arkansas’ War Memorial Stadium. In June 2010, when that field reached its end of life, the company removed and recycled the entire installation. Then it installed new turf. Never before had an entire field been recycled.
Artificial turf and recycling
Recycling artificial turf requires several steps. Removing turf from a sports field needs special equipment, but it’s fairly easy to roll it up and truck it away. It may or may not be necessary to remove infill, too. Removing turf from landscaping and other applications is more complicated because of the irregular shape.
It costs about $30,000-60,000 to landfill the turf from the typical sports field. Recycling artificial turf instead requires some kind of recycling facility within about 200 miles. Otherwise, transportation becomes prohibitively expensive.
In the next step after removal and transportation, it is necessary to separate all those different polymers. The variety of materials combined together into one product makes recycling artificial turf much more complicated than recycling most other materials.
After separation, some components can simply be reused in their original form. Others become raw materials for a variety of products, especially synthetic lumber and molded plastic products. Infill can become part of sound barriers, road bases, and other highway construction uses.
Few if any recycling operations can achieve the level of purity necessary to reuse materials for anything comparable to their original purpose. Recycling artificial turf therefore means materials will be used only for lower-grade applications.
Researchers have developed a “hot melt” backing that, in principle, make it easier to separate materials in the recycling process. So far, however, not many manufactures have worked with this unproven technology.
For now, therefore, artificial turf at the end of its life becomes a waste product. Some countries, such as the US, landfill most waste. Many European countries incinerate it in some kind of waste to energy installation. In too much of the world, however, waste winds up in unregulated dumps.
We can’t expect perfection at anything. We can expect that those who manufacture, install, and use artificial turf will monitor its health and environmental effects. Recycling artificial turf is in its infancy. Expect it to become easier, cheaper, and more common.
Entire synthetic turf fields now being recycled / Paul Steinbach, Athletic Business. September 2010.
Environmental impact study on artificial football turf / Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd for FIFA [Fédération Internationale de Football Association]. March 2017
Removal, recovery, reuse and recycling of synthetic turf and its system components / Synthetic Turf Council. 2015