Alternatives to Crumb Rubber for Synthetic Turf Fields

Alternatives to Crumb Rubber for Synthetic Turf Fields

As those involved with sports and recreation programs know, the safety of the crumb rubber traditionally used in synthetic turf has been questioned for years now. If you saw the NBC Nightly News report earlier this month, it’s clear the debate is still far from over. Fortunately, administrators and those responsible for athletic facilities have other options for synthetic turf infill, allowing them to move forward with field replacement or installation without getting involved in the debate.

While differing opinions make it difficult to make heads or tails of the safety of crumb rubber, it’s useful to know why crumb rubber use in synthetic turf fields has been so prevalent. There are a few main reasons field designers and administrators have turned to crumb rubber: it’s a cost-effective way to create a surface acceptable for modern athletics; it allows for the recycling of tons of used tires that would otherwise become part of the waste stream; and synthetic turf fields cost less to maintain while extending a sports field’s functional life. However, since coaches and parents became concerned that crumb rubber could be associated with life-threatening illnesses, no definitive study has been conducted to put these fears to rest.

Alternative options to consider

Synthetic turf fields have proven effective in increasing the amount of field availability and reducing overall maintenance costs, but crumb rubber is not the only option for achieving these outcomes. As coaches, and municipal and school officials remain concerned about the potential for carcinogens to be released from shredded tires, infills like Nike Grind, coated sand, and organic infill, among others, can be used without the anxiety surrounding the chemicals used to make crumb rubber.

  • Nike Grind has turned more than 28 million pairs of shoes into rubber composite infill. The rubber outsoles used to make this type of infill reportedly does not exceed hazardous levels for many of the concerning components found in other types of rubber.
  • Thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) is made up of plastic pellets that feel like rubber with the added benefit of being recyclable. This infill is reportedly non-toxic and comes in various colors.
  • Ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM) is a synthetic rubber that’s been primarily used in weather seals, roofing, and garden hoses, but has proven resistant to heat and oxidation.
  • Acrylic polymer-coated sand is a durable infill that mimics a sand-based natural turf field. The nontoxic acrylic coating protects the infill from mold, mildew, and bacteria.
  • Organic infill can be made up of coconut fibers, cork, or processed nutshells making it more similar to a natural grass system. Cork provides good cushioning and absorbs humidity, making it a potential option for some athletic fields.

Choosing wisely

Each of these alternatives will work well for some and not for others, depending on criteria such as the performance, climate, and maintenance requirements. Owners and field designers should research this information, as well as the source and quality of any infill they’re considering using. A bit of a cautionary tale on this note—this past August, five schools in the Los Angeles area had to begin replacing synthetic turf fields that had been installed over the past five years due to defective materials in the infill that melted. So it is very important to look closely at the quality of materials you choose for your field, possibly looking for other clients that have used this specific type of infill to see how satisfied they are with its performance.

Other things to consider are the overall cost of using a particular infill, rather than just the upfront costs, and the sustainability of the components that make up your synthetic infill, including where it will go at the end of the field’s functional life.

It is possible to continue building safe, cost-effective fields while avoiding the accusations surrounding crumb rubber. With research into all the important variables and proper due diligence, you might find one of these alternate choices is right for your athletic field.

**Editor's Note: Tom's article on alternative synthetic infills was published in the January issue of Parks & Rec Business. To learn more about this issue, you can read his article here.

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