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‘Running out of room’: How old turf fields raise potential environmental, health concerns

artificial grass

As fields are replaced, billions of pounds of rubber and synthetic fiber are piling up because the U.S. has no plan for disposing of this product.

The hulking wall of rubber was first discovered by a borough maintenance crew.

About 6,000 rolled pieces were neatly stacked about 10 feet high, covering more than an acre of private land, according to the mayor of Cleona, Pennsylvania.

The green blades of artificial grass peeking through the coiled logs offered the first clue.

“This is what it looks like when someone gets rid of a dozen turf fields and there’s nowhere to send them,” said Mayor Larry Minnich.

Used artificial turf is expected to produce 1 million to 4 million tons of waste in the next 10 years, and it has nowhere to go, according to solid waste industry analysts.

Minnich, the Cleona mayor, soon learned that the problem in his borough of about 2,100 people was similar to what communities were grappling with across the country — tons of worn-out, artificial school fields that municipal dumps won’t accept and a growing, unregulated, cottage industry of vacant land owners taking the waste.

Turf fields installed in waves a decade ago are reaching the end of their lifespan and need to be replaced, according to an industry trade association. Despite being touted as a completely recyclable alternative to grass, there are no companies in the U.S. that can completely recycle them, according to a trade association president.

The fields frequently end up in empty lots, backyards, in public spaces and on private land. Sometimes, they are given permission to be there. In some cases, they have been dumped illegally by contractors paid to remove them.

An inside look at the turf war

Artificial turf fields are largely made of scrap tires and synthetic fibers and are designed to look like natural grass. They’ve been revamped from the AstroTurf in the 1960s, which was largely made of fibers and sand, into the synthetic turf today that’s made of recycled rubber, fibers and sand.

There are about 12,000 to 15,000 turf fields in the United States, according to the Synthetic Turf Council. Most of those fields carry an eight-year warranty, which is standard across the industry. But the turf council’s top lobbyist says they can last 10 to 12 years.

When those fields reach the end of their lifespan, that waste has to go somewhere. But sending turf to a landfill is not cost effective or an industry best practice. Turf is already piling up on the sides of roads and being stored on private properties because there’s only one recycling facility in the world that can fully separate the parts for reuse, and that facility is in Denmark.

Some property owners are getting creative in how they reuse it, but disposed turf is outpacing demand. For now, some of these stacks are eyesores along highways that can last for decades.

Turf disposal is not regulated in Pennsylvania. These large piles of waste fall through bureaucratic cracks, leading to unchecked dumping. Though all waste in Pennsylvania requires a permit before being dumped, there are no specific rules on the books for turf. Those storing turf in Pennsylvania aren’t obtaining permits. They are cutting deals with landowners to store their waste, creating makeshift garbage dumps.

Without any rules or oversight, disposed turf becomes the burden and responsibility of anyone who lives around it.

Because stagnant water can pool inside them and attract rodents and mosquitoes, used tires can’t be taken to landfills. But turf, despite being largely made from old tires, can be taken to landfills. However, that’s an expensive option.

It’s $60 to $70 a ton to dispose of turf in a landfill. Each roll of turf is about 2,000 to 3,000 pounds. A ton is 2,000 pounds. For the 6,000 rolls of turf in Cleona, the landfill option would cost about $400,000.

But none of those rolls are headed to a dump. They’re headed to Denmark. Slowly.

Unregulated, untraced

Too often, old turf fields are not recycled and repurposed, according to Kyla Bennett, science and policy director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

She is also the director of the New England office for the watchdog organization, which helps government whistleblowers expose environmental wrongdoing.

Bennett said state and federal clients have reported that most turf fields typically go to landfills or are dumped illegally.

“They usually show up near wetlands or streams,” she said.

That’s a concern because turf fields are largely made of crumb rubber, which is scrap tires. Scrap tires shouldn’t be dumped near or in waterways because they pose two health threats: a safe haven for pests and fire risk, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Prone to heat retention, tires in stockpiles also can ignite, creating tire fires that are difficult to extinguish and can burn for months, generating unhealthy smoke and toxic oils,” according to the EPA.

Dan Bond, president of the Synthetic Turf Council, a Fairfax, Virginia-based trade group, said disposal of turf in waterways was a bad practice of the industry’s past.

“It used to happen in the ’80s and ’90s before recycling. Yes, that did happen, but our trade group is emphatic about best practices today, and our manufacturers and recyclers adhere to it,” Bond said.

But it’s not the manufacturers or recyclers he lobbies for who are removing the fields when they need to be replaced every eight to 10 years.

It’s usually a subcontractor who shows up to remove a field and dispose it. Sometimes, two different businesses are hired to remove a field and get rid of it. There’s no chain of custody. There are no regulations at state and federal levels on turf disposal.

The industry can regulate itself by setting guidelines and best practices, Bond said. His trade group recommends giving municipalities and school districts tax breaks for finding beneficial reuses for turf.

That’s not good enough for Bennett, who said it’s a scheme that “kicks the can down the road and distributes the problem to someone else.”

Concerns about chemicals found in artificial turf

Whistleblowers who work with PEER have raised concerns about the toxicity of the disposed fields that frequently get dumped on land near community water supplies, she said.

“It’s a problem for everybody,” Bennett said.

Bond said 110 industry studies found no increased risk of disease to anyone of any age who uses turf fields. He points to the studies on the trade association website.

In its first report about crumb-rubber synthetic fields, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said research was “inconclusive” on the safety of crumb-rubber fields.

They found a range of metals and chemicals in turf fields.

“While chemicals are present as expected in the (tire) crumb rubber, human exposure appears to be limited based on what is released into air or simulated biological fluids,” the report says.

The 800-page report looked at what chemicals are present in the fields, but it didn’t study whether those chemicals are safe for the people using them.

It is unclear when the second part of the federal study will be released.

A study by the Washington State Department of Health in 2017 found no evidence that crumb rubber in turf fields contained enough cancer-causing chemicals to put players at risk.

California is conducting its own study on turf fields, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission is studying children’s exposure to chemicals on rubber tire surfaces at playgrounds.

Growing cycle of installing, removing of turf fields

In the meantime, the number of new turf fields being installed and old ones being removed is growing every year in the multi-billion industry.

There are between 12,000 and 15,000 turf fields in the U.S., Bond said, and another 1,200 and 1,500 are opening each year.

Meanwhile, the number of disposed fields has grown from 365 in 2013 to 750 in 2018. The number of disposed turf fields is expected to grow by hundreds this year and in the upcoming year, according to the trade association.

And something that both the industry and environmentalists agree on is that they need somewhere to put them.

An apparent solution, hampered by a lack of oversight

The solution to the old turf problem might be found in the pipeline from Cleona to Denmark.

Dozens of loads are being shipped at a time to Re-Match, a Scandanavian company that the industry and environmentalists agree is the only true recycling facility in the world.

But founder Dennis Anderson said his company is a solution few U.S. companies are using, mainly because there are no regulations that require fields to be recycled.

It costs about $20,000 to ship one field overseas and be recycled at Re-Match, he said. That’s cheaper than a landfill. But if a contractor can pay a landowner a little bit of money to store turf, they will probably choose that option over shipping to Denmark, Anderson said.

His recycling method is patented in 56 countries and is the only one that completely separates the grass part of the turf from the crumb rubber part, he said. Re-Match is the only company that has the technology to recycle an old turf field into a new one, Anderson said.

Anderson has been storing 10 to 15 fields in Cleona while he works on opening a new facility in the Netherlands to serve the growing European market, where there are 4,100 new turf fields per year.

The European market also outpaces the U.S. market on regulations and has stricter requirements on recycling.

Cleona didn’t have any regulations on the books, either, but the mayor pressured Re-Match to remove the turf from the borough. Anderson flew to Pennsylvania to meet with him.

“I told them to take it away. Make it all go away,” Minnich said in the summer. “They did a little bit, but not to the level I was happy about. We’re hoping to get all of it out before winter sets in. That’s the plan as of today.”

 

This article was originally published on theintell.com