Turf recycling: the ongoing evolution of an industry

By Mary Helen Sprecher

The three Rs used to be tongue-in-cheek shorthand for “Reading, Writing and ‘rithmetic.” These days, it’s more about “Reuse, Recycle and Reduce.”

The importance of being eco-friendly has permeated every level of our society, including the sports world. Now, sustainability—once limited to setting up waste containers for paper and plastic at a ballgame—starts when the stadium is built. Owners want an earth-friendly, energy-efficient building.

The trend has certainly hit the artificial turf industry. Now, as the first generation of fields is hitting the end of its useful life, the question is increasingly being asked: What to do with the material that will be taken out? After all, a football, soccer or lacrosse field is a lot of square footage, and the owners who had that field put in would like to know that as it is being removed, they have done their part in helping the environment.

Mark Heinlein, of Turf Reclamation Solutions (TRS), is hearing the questions all the time. But, he admits, the answer isn’t always easy.

“I think there are a couple issues that need to be clarified upfront,” Heinlein states. “The first issue is what you mean when you use the term, ‘recycling.’ Strictly speaking, recycling means making new products from waste materials. This is not happening in the turf industry to any extent. In the field reclamation business, recycling normally means either reusing or repurposing the materials.”

Heinlein defines reuse as taking up the field surface itself and putting it someplace else as another field. Repurposing, he says, means using the materials for something other than a field, adding, “Because the reclaimed materials are not being processed into new materials, it’s confusing to refer to it as recycling.”

While reusing the turf in another location might sound enticing (and even altruistic, since there is always the idea of donating something that is no longer needed), Heinlein notes, it often is not feasible from a practical standpoint.

“There are some fields that should not be reused. They have little or no useful life left and it’s only a matter of time, and sometimes that’s a very short time, before that repurposed surface will have to be taken out. To me, that’s just making disposal someone else’s problem.”

Reusing the current infill in a new surface, meanwhile, is the more popular option by far. Heinlein cites the savings to the field owner (who does not have to purchase new infill) as one of the reasons.

“Any infill you can reclaim is something you don’t have to buy. Often, the contractor will give the owner some credit for this; they might say, ‘If you want to re-use the infill, we’ll knock this much off our bid.’ That way, both the owner and a contractor get a benefit.”

Something to be aware of, he points out, is that as technology has changed over the years, infill has changed as well. Many of the early fields were built with infill materials, most often sand and rubber, neither of which met tight specifications or quality requirements.

“Today,” Heinlein notes, “the industry is much more aware of the impact of the infill characteristics. When we were a brand-new industry, we did not have the knowledge that comes with experience. There wasn’t a lot of information available on sand sizing, rubber sizing, even the sources of rubber. Our infills now are technically much more predictable than in the past.”

While the technology exists to take out an old carpet surface and create new components with it, Heinlein notes, it is just now becoming available to the turf industry.

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

And as first generation of fields starts to wear out, the clock is ticking. A better option needs to be found and needs to be made available. Even the most recent edition of the book, “Sports Fields: A Construction and Maintenance Manual,” by the American Sports Builders Association, included chapters on sustainability and field recycling. Heinlein, who authored those segments of the book, says the demand is out there.

“By 2016, we will see about 1,000 fields reaching their end of life every year,” says Heinlein. “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. Landfilling is just an unacceptable practice from a sustainability standpoint.”

However, Heinlein adds, new systems for recycling artificial turf surfaces are being developed in the US and Europe. He is confident that the technology will be successful and eventually accessible and affordable.

In addition, he notes, “We’re starting to see turf manufacturers focus on making carpet that are easier to recycle. We didn’t have that 15 years ago. Synthetic turf is commonly made of a mix of polymers. This makes recycling difficult. The new trend is to manufacture carpets with single polymer materials that can be recycled more easily.”

The industry continues to evolve and Heinlein says the demand for earth-friendly solutions will continue to rise. He has seen it in the number of calls his company receives from those in the industry.

“There have always been people who do not simply want to throw something away. Repurposing the carpets and infill is part of the answer but we need solutions for a much greater volume of material. We get questions from architects, owners and others, all of whom are asking about their options. They want to do their homework. It’s good for us, obviously, but it’s better for the industry because it shows a growing awareness. If given equitable choices, nobody would choose to say ‘Here, take my 80,000 square feet of turf and throw it into the landfill.’ They want a better answer. We want everyone to be able to say, ‘Hey, look, this facility is 100 percent recycled.’ It drives the industry to a better place.”

Mary Helen Sprecher is a free lance writer who wrote this article on behalf of the American Sports Builders Association (ASBA), a non-profit association helping designers, builders, owners, operators and users understand quality sports facility construction. The ASBA sponsors informative meetings and publishes newsletters, books (including the Sports Fields book mentioned in this article) and technical construction guidelines for athletic facilities including sports fields. It also offers voluntary certification programs in sports facility construction and maintenance, including sports fields. Available at no charge is a listing of all publications offered by the Association, as well as the ASBA’s Membership Directory. Info: 866-501-ASBA (2722) or www.sportsbuilders.org