Since the first installation over 50 years ago, Synthetic turf has had major impacts on the sports field industry.  With over an estimated 12,000 synthetic field installed in the United States these impacts are manifest is many ways.  The synthetic turf industries continually strive to reduce the impacts that their fields have on the athletes and the public by reducing injuries and potential harm to the environment.

The reduction impact injuries is one of the main goals of the industry.  The main impact injuries are to the feet and legs and to the head.  To reduce these injuries the industry has introduced infill materials, increased the pile height of the carpet, modified the materials and density of the fibers and the infill, and evolved the grass blade design.

The original Astro Turf installed in 1966 was essentially an indoor/ outdoor carpet with a foam pad installed over concrete.  The technology advanced from there by increasing the pile length and introducing sand infill mixed with crumb rubber.  To date shock absorbing pads have been introduced in concert with different types of infill materials such as pellets made out of recycled shoes, Acrylic Polymer coated sand particles or organic infill using the likes of shredded coconuts or processed nut shells. The latest technology looks to be coming out of a by byproduct of research in the automotive industry.  This impact absorbing pad manufactured from resilient thermoplastic urethane material that looks like bubble wrap that will reduce in height by 90% when impacted and then returns to its natural form. All of these innovations have been made in an effort to reduce the impact injuries to the athlete and insure their safety.

The impact of the heat absorbed and then released by synthetic fields is felt primarily by the athletes themselves.  This is one of the biggest concerns of synthetic fields. While the temperature measured 3 feet above the turf can register at about the same as the air temperature, the temperature at the surface of the field can register much higher.  The industry has utilized different methods to reduce the effect felt by the athlete of the heat being transferred from the turf up through the athlete’s feet and legs.

Irrigation of the fields is one of the methods called upon to reduce the heat effect.  This is done through the installation of fixed or mobile water “cannons” that are used to wet down the field when the temperatures are extreme.  The design of the shape and composition of the grass blades is being used lower the temperature by up to 15 degrees. In some locations Cooling systems are being installed under the field to lower the temperature.  Some of the latest information says that the proper way to keep the players safe is to provide misters to keep the athletes cool and safe from overheating.

The introduction of synthetic turf has also had an impact on sustainability.  The installation of a synthetic field will reduce/ eliminate the use of irrigation water and reduce the use of fertilizers that have to potential to infiltrate and harm water sheds.  The use of misters to cool athletes in lieu of irrigation systems to cool the entire field can again reduce the water usage and help conserve water.  The use of shock absorbing pads underneath the carpet can reduce the amount of infill material that needs to be replaced when it is time to replace and recycle the fields.

Synthetic fields have and average lifespan of about 8 years.  The disposal of the materials used in the field has an impact on the environment.  Different Methods across the country are being used around the country to reduce the amount of materials ending up in landfills.  These methods range from reusing the materials in golf course sand traps to removing, cleaning and reusing infield materials in future fields and repurposing and recycling the other field components for use in other products.

One of the main efforts that can be used to mitigate and reduce the impact of the fields to both the athlete and the public is to maintain the fields properly.  Proper maintenance helps provide the needed protections for the players by supplying smooth playing surfaces and correct shock absorption and extending the playing careers of the athletes.  It also extends the lifespan of the fields, reducing the amount of recycling needed and saving the owner money.

By Vincent Olcott ASLA
MHTN Associate, Leader in Sustainable Site Strategies