Crumb Rubber Infill - Toxic Doubts Creates Consumer Awareness

As a Connecticut community begins to explore the use of synthetic grass surfaces for local high school sports fields, a well-known, widely used job material called crumb rubber infill seems to take center stage.

Crumb rubber infill is generally made from processed and reclaimed (recycled) tire rubber. Town meeting officials, presenting plans for upcoming projects, find themselves fielding questions such as: "Recycled tire rubber is a waste product, isn't it?" Whispers of mosquito infested tire heaps and smoldering piles of hazardous materials circulate the room; uncertainty is voiced as challenges: "Is it safe? Has it been tested?"

Considering what most of us assume to know about recycled tires, anyone can see why a layperson, unfamiliar with the job materials used to install a synthetic sport field system, might become concerned and call "FOUL BALL"; demanding proof of the recycled tire crumbs' safety and validation of its need of use.

If familiarity breeds contempt, lack of it feeds doubt. In the case of the use of recycled crumb rubber, these doubts may cost one East Coast state $200,000 as concerned citizens of Westport, CT demand a moratorium on the building of new fields and testing of existing local projects already in use; claiming not enough is known about the potential of risks, if any, from the recycled crumb rubber infill.

The use of synthetic turf materials has been a sports-driven, field centric market for over 40 years and until recently, an investment made only by the sports elite; a group well known to spend lavishly on the safety and performance of their primary asset, their players. It may be a stark way of putting it, yet sports, for profit, is exactly that and bottom line, if the value, safety and performance proposition wasn't there, neither would the demand for synthetic fields or the materials or expertise to build them.

Indoor and outdoor stadiums, covered in artificial surfaces abound, and safety testing and product improvements have been a priority for profit and non-profit organizations, alike. As the adoption of faux grass surfaces grows outside the traditional sports market, the exposure of synthetic grass products to new consumers provides an opportunity to talk about their value and uses to everyone; professional and layman, alike.

What we "laymen" probably don't know is that there are environmental agencies of several North American and European countries, along with international sports authorities, schools, universities and sports organizations playing watch-dog over this conversation, as well as, every professional in the field of sports. They've been doing this for years. We [laymen] are not "alone" in our desire to make wise and educated decisions for our communities, our teams, and our families.

Unfortunately, there are a few mis-quoted "sound bites" and data points that tend to find their way into discussions and are interpreted as fact …. mostly hype and mis-information spawned by the lobbyists of the $40 billion dollar "natural" grass industry, driven by the efforts of Turf Producers International (TPI)*.

Mis-information or mis-interpretation will always stir things up; especially when you start talking about using relatively unknown and "un-natural" sounding products such as poly-olefin fibers with poly-urethane coated backings and recycled tire rubber infill, up close and personal with our children, family members and pets. As to the expense of additional studies, it's always important to take a critical look at any system, every few years. Maybe these studies can help develop even better products for the future.

Synthetic turf represents approximately 0.02% of all the lawn and natural grass surfaces installed and maintained annually in the US, yet there are hundreds of millions of square feet of these products installed all over the planet in every conceivable set of environmental conditions. Because of their "nature" - artificial surfaces usually abound where grass could not or would not grow effectively.

Reality is, NFL Teams and amateur sports associations, care just as much about their players as you and I do about our families and communities. Before the first field was ever laid in the early 1960s, safety has driven the development of synthetic turf products and systems. Research and test studies, conducted by users, municipalities, environmental protection agencies, water districts, national and international sports associations that set safety standards have accumulated data spanning years; it all consistently shows that artificial grass and crumb rubber infill are safe and beneficial products.

Westport officials reviewed public concerns and are displaying their confidence in the results of existing, published studies and reports by moving forward to break ground on their much needed sports field projects. State officials have also committed to funding the two year testing program, so those community members who want to can monitor their concerns with tangible, verifiable and authoritative results, from their own backyard.

What Is Infill and Why Is It Needed?

Let's start with the first generation of artificial turf that was installed, as a field, in the early 1960s, just a few years before the well-known AstroDome installation. It was a single, integrated surface, built of layers of synthetic materials and durable, artificial blades. Now, in their third generation, artificial turf surfaces resemble shag-like carpets, lushly tufted with soft, natural looking fibers and an additional component called infill.

Infill is spread across the TOP of the grass blades so that the materials will fill the voids in between the synthetic fibers and cover the backing, helping protect it and the base of the blade fibers from ultra-violet damage. Infill also provides weight, to hold the surface materials in place and additional structure to the surfaces, increasing vertical and horizontal strength, stability and resiliency for a safe, playable surface.

Four Types of Infill

Early guidelines for infill materials specified the use of small grains of fine silica sand. Current choices include recycled (SBR) and new rubber (EPDM) pellets (or crumb), round dust-less acrylic coated silica granules and (currently under development and testing in European markets) synthetic pellets (or beadlets) made from custom blended components called thermoplastic elastomers or (TPE).

Each type of infill has it's own set of properties. The most commonly used, due to its effectiveness, availability and reasonable cost is recycled crumb rubber or SBR. Product quality can vary in the raw materials source, how it is processed, packaged and handled. Though most crumb rubber is sourced from within North American borders, imported materials are available and may not meet US standards.

No Slam Dunk - System Solutions Are Built to Perform and Last

System integrators and sports field builders engineer each field to specifications for local conditions and use. Plans specify materials, site preparation, excavation, drainage and base construction customized for each installation and budget. Systems have been developed over years of real-world, in-the-field experiences; honing each process and job material to optimize the complete set of components to deliver safety, durability, playability, along with a natural look and feel.

Professional builders using artificial turf materials for landscape and leisure sports uses, such as lawns, putting greens, tee lines, chipping areas and bocce ball courts, share the benefits of all the years of sport field product development with the home and commercial property owner. Recent fiber and tufting enhancements have evolved new styles that increase the appeal of faux grass materials to the property owner.

Landscape and leisure sports builders provide their own branded synthetic turf solutions, design and installation expertise, and base their product offerings upon best business practices for the project's site, design and use goals.

Market Growth Proves Acceptance Is High, Risks are Low, Value Is There

The growth and acceptance of faux turf has been astounding, especially in the past few years, yet the amount of faux grass projects being constructed annually represents a mere 5% of all the carpet manufactured and used in the United States each year.

Synthetic grass and artificial turf markets are considered the fastest growing segment of the carpet market at a healthy combined market growth of 20+%* per year. The number of annual field installation contracts has nearly doubled since early 2000 and the applications and uses in the landscape and leisure sports markets keep expanding into new niche markets; community golf, bocce, play and multi-purpose sports areas, daycare, aviation, kennels and grey water run-off & erosion control.

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