Artificial Turf Is Piling Up With No Recycling Fix
Where do the millions of square meters of artificial turf die?
The answer: The same place where used tires used to be – in landfills, in rural and urban stockpiles and in “ravines, deserts, forests and empty lots,” according to a FairWarning survey.
Despite frequent claims by lawn manufacturers that artificial turf fields are recyclable and environmentally friendly, FairWarning found that worn-out fields and playgrounds have a limited lifespan. Artificial turf is essentially a carpet of plastic, grassy blades interspersed with sand and powdered tires or other filler material to add stability and shock absorption to the field.
However, the technology to recycle this complex product – separating the plastic grass and backing from the sand and rubber infill – is not fully developed in the U.S. or is considered too expensive, according to an industry report and interviews with turf experts.
FairWarning has not found any state or federal regulations for the disposal of artificial turf other than general waste management regulations. The industry has publicly stated that the disposal burden rests with the field owners, who often seek instructions from lawn sellers or consultants.
Meanwhile, a niche industry has emerged that is reclaiming some of the nation’s old turf, selling custom pieces to homeowners for landscaping, batting cages, and dog kennels. But the end result is the same: at some point, the stuff is meant for the dumpster.
The fire hazard, which the EPA complained about in its 1991 waste tire report, creeps back into the age of artificial turf, when flames break out where reels with discarded playing fields are stowed away.
“The government had this problem and was looking for a solution,” said Amanda Farber, a Maryland activist and mother who raised the alarm about the potential health risks of artificial turf. “You call it recycling; I would just call it a detour. “
“The problem hasn’t gone away,” she says. “It’s just someone else’s problem.”
An EPA spokeswoman wrote in an email that the agency “promotes the environmentally sound and beneficial use of secondary materials, including scrap tires.” She said the agency hadn’t investigated the disposal of turf fields and had no information on where the waste ended up. That’s up to the state and local governments, she said.
The problem is assembly.
The Synthetic Turf Council, the most important trading group in the industry, estimates that there are 12,000 to 13,000 artificial turf fields in the United States, with approximately 1,200 to 1,500 new installations per year. The industry’s bad luck is that artificial turf saves water and eliminates the need for pesticides, fertilizers and constant mowing. And unlike real weed, the variety produced is billed all year round.
Today, hundreds of panels installed in the mid-2000s have an estimated lifespan of eight to ten years or more. Most of these early fields were made with tire crumbs, also known as crumb rubber, a product that has come under intense scrutiny in recent years because of concerns that tiny fragments of tires containing heavy metals and chemicals could be dangerous. The Synthetic Turf Council has repeatedly reassured the public that these fields are safe.