Synthetic or Natural, Sports Fields Remain Grounds for Debate | Sports Destination Management

Synthetic or Natural, Sports Fields Remain Grounds for Debate

Sep 14, 2023 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher

It’s safe. It’s not. It drains better. It’s hot. The debate about synthetic turf fields continues to rage. And while some parents loudly proclaim they won’t let their children compete in programs where play takes place on artificial turf, the travel sports landscape nationwide, as well as worldwide, is made up of both natural and synthetic fields.


Adding fuel to the fire is the debate surrounding the season-ending Achilles tendon injury sustained by NFL player Aaron Rogers; however, NFL executive Jeff Miller claimed in response that there were no statistical differences in injury data dating back to 2015 in terms of Achilles injuries suffered on natural grass compared to synthetic turf. Expect those arguments to continue in light of the fact that an earlier report found that noncontact injuries in the NFL occurred less frequently on grass fields.


Additionally, it is expected that many NFL fields with synthetic surfaces will be expected to convert to grass in order to host FIFA World Cup action when it comes to the USA; however, it remains to be seen whether the natural surfaces will remain – or be converted back to synthetic once those matches have concluded.


The long-term health risks of synthetic fields, meanwhile, are always fodder for either a shouting match or a scare, and at the core of this part of the issue is a group of chemicals found in such fields, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS. PFAS is actually a large and complex group of synthetic chemicals; consumer products containing PFAS have been used since about the 1950s. They can be found in everyday products, including cleaning compounds, water-resistant fabrics like rain jackets, umbrellas and tents, as well as nonstick cookware, personal care products like shampoo, dental floss, nail polish and eye makeup – and a multitude of others.


And PFAS chemicals continue to make headlines. Last spring, information came out that six former MLB players (Tug McGraw, Darren Daulton, John Vukovich, John Oates, Ken Brett and David West) had all died from glioblastoma, a relatively rare form of brain cancer. And while there was speculation on whether this was due to the fact that all players had competed on synthetic turf when they were part of the Phillies, PFAS chemicals are also present in a wide variety of athleticwear.


While the EPA has stepped up its work to study PFAS, there is, at this time, no law against such chemicals. The latest development came in March of 2023, when EPA proposed the establishment of legally enforceable levels for six PFAS known to occur in drinking water. And, in fact, in June of this year, DuPont was one of three manufacturing companies that agreed to pay more than $1 billion in claims for injuries and illnesses related to the PFAS chemicals it had released into local water supplies. (The story of the case against DuPont was told in the movie, “Dark Waters.”) And in some areas, school or park officials have announced they will no longer use synthetic fields, but there has been no federal, or even state, ruling against them.


In the meantime, science is still lacking any hard evidence that links artificial turf with any specific illness, from cancer to allergies. In Washington State, for example, the Department of Health and researchers at the University of Washington School of Public Health formed a project team to investigate issues related to soccer playing and cancer. In addition to studying the carpet and the fibers themselves, the DOH reviewed data concerning what is known as the infill (the granulated products used to keep carpet fibers standing upright; these have included crumb rubber from ground-up tires, as well as other materials, such as sand and encapsulated granules.


The conclusion: “Based on what we know today, the Washington State Department of Health recommends that people who enjoy soccer continue to play regardless of the type of field surface. Our recommendation is based on our investigation and the available research on crumb rubber which currently does not suggest it poses a significant public health risk.


The report continued, ”Parents should be aware, but not concerned. We know that crumb rubber is made from tires that contain chemicals that have been shown to cause cancer. However, what is critical to consider are the routes of exposure and potential dose someone receives. The available research suggests exposures from crumb rubber are very low and will not cause cancer among soccer players.”


Because of the concerns over chemicals found in infill, alternate infill materials are being used as well; many of these are finding good acceptance.


More of a concern to those with fields at the moment is the sustainability of synthetic turf. Synthetic fields reach a point (generally eight to 12 years after installation) where replacement becomes necessary. Torn inseams, reduction of infill, fiber degradation or worn turf are some of the warning signs (although there are others).


Unfortunately, a used synthetic field isn’t like a pop bottle; it can’t be sent to a traditional recycling facility and turned into a brand-new field. And for a while, all those field surfaces went to landfills. However, as demand grew, the industry advanced, allowing first for parts of that field to be repurposed or reused.


In the first generation of this technology, when a synthetic field was being removed and replaced, it became possible to reuse the infill. Reusing the current infill in a new surface lent itself to cost savings in construction. Specialty equipment was developed to remove the infill from the turf – either onsite or at a remote location. (Extracting the infill allowed it to be reused and dramatically decreased transportation and disposal costs for the turf, since 75 percent or more of the field’s weight is actually the infill).


The full recycling of turf (known as a circular system) is still in its infancy, but it does exist now. The technology for the recycling of all field components, which previously was found only in Europe, is now starting to arrive stateside. It is not yet widespread, and its acceptance here will be driven by a number of factors: cost, local availability (trucking fees can be expensive if material needs to be transported long distances), and, ultimately, awareness of the technology.


In 2022, Netherlands-based TenCate Grass, a manufacturer, distributor and installer of synthetic turf for sports and landscape applications, announced it would launch a program in the U.S. to artificial fields that had reached or exceeded the end of their useful lifespans. The company said this initiative would leverage Cyclyx’s feedstock processing expertise and ExxonMobil’s ExxtendTM technology for advanced recycling. 


Recycling Today noted, “The program will process 50 aged turf fields from high schools and college campuses across California. The end-of-life turf will be shipped to a Southern California facility where it will be shredded. The shredded turf will then be delivered from California to Texas, where Cyclyx International, headquartered in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, will further reprocess it before sending the turf to ExxonMobil’s Baytown, Texas, advanced recycling facility. With ExxonMobil’s proprietary Exxtend technology, the end-of-life turf will be broken down into raw materials that can be used to make new products that are no different in quality and performance than those made from virgin raw materials.”


With more sustainability in its corner, artificial turf remains a popular choice for sports tourism facilities because it allows for more games to be played without sustaining the damage that natural fields can get. It can also drain more quickly after rain events. Additionally, it will never need much of the care that natural fields need – including insecticides, fertilizers or other chemicals, another source of concern among parents.


High schools, as well as colleges nationwide, have fields in both types of surfaces, and at this point, the choice seems to be individual to the institution. It is important to note, however, that the choice made will hinge on a number of factors, including how much use fields get in a concentrated time period (including whether multiple sports are played and whether the field receives year-round, or near year-round use), the climate (including the amount of rain a field will receive, but also including the length and duration of the playing season), the amount in the maintenance budget is (and the size of the maintenance crew), as well as a number of other factors.


But it can absolutely be expected that the debate over surfacing will continue, and SDM will continue to follow it.

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