Where do the millions of square feet of synthetic turf go to die?
The answer: The same place scrap tires went before—to landfills, rural and urban stockpiles, and “ravines, deserts, woods, and empty lots,” according to a FairWarning investigation.
Despite frequent claims by turf manufacturers that synthetic-turf fields are recyclable and environmentally friendly, FairWarning found that worn-out playing fields and playgrounds have limited second lives. Essentially, synthetic turf is a carpet of plastic, grasslike blades interspersed with sand and pulverized tires, or other infill materials, to give the field stability and shock absorbency.
But the technology to recycle this complex product—separating the plastic grass and backing from the sand-and-rubber infill—still isn’t fully developed in the United States, or is deemed too expensive, according to one industry report and interviews with turf experts.
FairWarning found no state or federal regulations specific to disposal of artificial turf, apart from general waste-management rules. The industry has publicly stated that the disposal burden lies with field owners, who often seek direction from turf vendors or consultants.
Meanwhile, a niche industry has emerged to reclaim some of the nation’s old turf and sell custom pieces to homeowners for landscaping, batting cages, and dog kennels. But the end result is the same: eventually, the stuff is bound for the Dumpster.
The fire threat, lamented by the EPA in its 1991 scrap-tire report, also is creeping back in the age of artificial turf as blazes break out where rolls of discarded playing fields are stashed.
“The government had this problem, and they were looking for a solution,” says Amanda Farber, a Maryland activist and mother who has raised alarms about the potential health risks of artificial turf. “They call this recycling; I would just call it a waste detour.”
“The problem hasn’t gone away,” she says. “It’s just somebody else’s problem.”
An EPA spokeswoman wrote in an email that the agency “encourages the environmentally appropriate beneficial use of secondary materials, including scrap tires.” She said the agency has not studied disposal of turf fields, and has no information about where the waste ends up. That’s up to state and local governments, she said.
The problem is mounting.
The Synthetic Turf Council, the industry’s main trade group, estimates that 12,000 to 13,000 synthetic-turf fields are in the U.S., with some 1,200 to 1,500 new installations a year. The industry’s pitch is that synthetic turf saves on water and eliminates the need for pesticides, fertilizers, and constant mowing. And unlike real grass, the manufactured variety is billed as a year-round surface.
But today, hundreds of fields that were installed in the mid-2000s are at or beyond their estimated eight-to-10-year life spans. Most of these early fields were made with tire crumb, also known as crumb rubber, a product that has come under intense scrutiny in recent years over fears that tiny tire fragments containing heavy metals and chemicals might be dangerous. The Synthetic Turf Council has repeatedly assured the public that these fields are safe.