The use of artificial turf in sports fields and stadiums has grown exponentially over the past few decades. But with hundreds of fields being removed and replaced each year and no means to recycle them, the amount of material building up at the landfill seems endless — until now.
“We built equipment that's designed specifically for removing and reclaiming the turf,” said Mark Heinlein, president of Turf Reclamation Solutions, a turf removal company out of Cincinnati. “Until recently, there wasn't much else you could do with it [other than landfill it], so this is really a huge step for the industry because we now have a solution.”
The life span of a typical turf field is around 7-10 years. With more fields installed every year, the amount of material destined for the landfill continues to grow.
“We're looking at somewhere around 40 million pounds of carpet that has to be handled on an annual basis, so it's just a tremendous volume of material,” Heinlein said.
Most turf field systems are composed of mixed polymers, which makeup the turf grass, and also infill components — usually sand and crumbed rubber — which fills the grass to add shock absorbency.
The turf grass is usually a mixture of polyethylene, polypropylene and polyurethane, though some can use materials like nylon or polyester as well. While the plastic in turf field systems can usually be recycled on its own, it is difficult for recyclers to separate the plastics from the sand and rubber infill.
“We have built the equipment that allows us to extract all of that sand and rubber out of the carpet,” Heinlein said. “So now we're back to having a clean plastic carpet that we can then put through the process to get to an end product.”
TRS has teamed up with Universal Textile Technologies Inc., of Dalton, Ga., to convert the turf into new products. Once the turf is cleaned of infill and removed from the field by TRS, the material is sent to UTT's recycling facility in Dalton, where it is ground and repelletized.
AstroTurf LLC, a sister company of UTT, also announced recently its ability to recycle full fields by contracting with TRS, or one of the other few companies capable of separating infill from turf, and then recycling the material at UTT's facility in Dalton.
The turf is most commonly recycled into pallets, dog bowls, and a range of other extruded plastic products, Heinlein said.
“One of the things that we're most excited about is that we've taken the turf, re-compounded it, and actually made it back into infill, which will then go into the field.”
Both TRS and AstroTurf offer full-field recycling as a disposal alternative to their customers at an additional cost. However, depending on where the field being removed is located, landfill tipping fees can vary dramatically, making recycling a more affordable option for some customers.
“It's relatively expensive to put a field in the landfill,” said Heinlein. “We may be able to dispose of a field for $5,000-$10,000 here in the Midwest, but that same field on the East Coast in New York is $45,000 — so where it's very expensive to landfill they're looking for other answers.”
Still, since TRS is one of only a few companies with the ability to remove infill from the turf for its recyclability, the landfill remains the most common resting ground for old turf.
“There are not many companies recycling turf,” he said. “There are other companies that are dabbling in it, trying to figure it out, but I believe we're the first ones that have come out and said look, we have a solution, we can take your field out, we can recycle it, and we can give you a chain of custody certification that it was not only diverted from the landfill but made into these products and put back into the industry.”