Concerns raised over feasibility of synthetic turf recycling

Huntress-made guarantees about end-of-life for field called into question.

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Huntress Associates' rendering of a planned field at MVRHS.

Concerns have been raised regarding the feasibility of a proposed synthetic turf field at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) being recycled at the end of its useful life. 

The Times reported that despite a specification in the MVRHS Master Plan that requires end-of-life recycling, “including chain of custody certification for all products,” there was, at that time (and is currently), no such facility operating in the U.S.

“The ability to recycle an entire synthetic turf field, at little to no cost to the owner, is now possible,” the Master Plan reads. “One such recycling facility is presently being constructed in Pennsylvania by ReMatch Turf Recycling, Inc., and is expected to be fully operational by 2019.”

In a conversation with ReMatch owner Dennis Anderson, The Times confirmed at that time that there was no such facility.

According to a letter to the Oak Bluffs planning board from the Vineyard Conservation Society, there is a growing public awareness of the impacts of plastic pollution, and recent Island efforts show a clear goal of reducing plastics in the environment. “These range from educational efforts to change individual behavior, to the installation of water bottle refill stations, to the policy changes overwhelmingly approved by town meeting voters: the prohibition of the release of helium balloons, bans on disposable bottles, and the Island-wide ban on plastic shopping bags,” the letter reads.

In the context of the field proposal, the letter states that “artificial turf presents plastic waste issues similar to the common disposable items our community has been working to reduce.”

Additionally, the letter points to possible issues of plastic fibers deteriorating and entering groundwater.

“Against this backdrop of progress in reducing plastic pollution, replacing a natural grass field with a massive plastic carpet would be dissonant, and very disappointing,” the letter reads.

In a recent letter to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which is reviewing the project as a development of regional impact, and the Oak Bluffs Planning Board, Amanda Farber of Safe Healthy Playing Fields Inc. voiced her concerns. The MVC is undergoing a pre-public review before opening up to public discussion.

Safe Healthy Playing Fields is a volunteer organization that advocates for natural grass fields, and shares documented research surrounding the synthetic turf industry.

In her letter, Farber points to a number of issues that require clarity in the proposed field project, and requests that great detail be paid to the specifics of chain of custody and end-of-life recycling claims in the proposal. She identifies the cost of recycling synthetic turf materials to be prohibitively expensive, particularly due to the fact that there is currently no operational recycling facility in the U.S.

“We do know there are currently no complete circular artificial turf recycling facilities in the United States at this time. Artificial turf often ends up landfilled, incinerated, dumped, or stockpiled. There are documented and reported stockpiles throughout the United States,” the letter reads. 

In August, the Horsley Witten Group, an independent environmental consulting firm hired by the MVC, conducted a review of the project which found that the practicality of recycling the materials proposed at MVRHS has not been solidified by the applicant.

In addition, the firm could not confirm that a facility would be available in the U.S. in the next few years, but did not preclude the possibility of such a facility being opened within the useful life of the synthetic field. 

In February, a letter to the MVC from Joe Fields, president of Greenfields Turf, a subsidiary of Tencate Grass, offered a guarantee of chain of custody documentation and a comprehensive recycling program using an existing recycling facility in the Netherlands operated by GBN Artificial Grass Recycling. 

“We are in the planning stages for a similar recycling facility in the U.S., and we are confident that our U.S.-based recycling facility will be online in the next 24 months,” the letter states.

But correspondence referenced in Farber’s letter from Eric Van Roekel, CEO of GBN, suggests that it would be infeasible for a synthetic turf field to be shipped to the Netherlands. “​We need to do the numbers, but I still believe a field from the U.S. should be recycled in the U.S. and not shipped abroad,” the correspondence reads.

In addition, a correspondence from Van Roekel quoted in Farber’s letter suggests that plans for a U.S.-based facility are still uncertain. “As we speak we are formalizing the plans for new recycling plants in Germany and France. Next step could be U.S./Canada,” the correspondence reads.

According to Chris Huntress of Huntress Associates, his firm has outlined specific requirements that any possible bidder must fulfill before they are retained for the project.

“We have submitted our own synthetic turf specifications to the MVC that require that any manufacturer would have to show a complete end-of-life recycling program,” Huntress said.

As part of the extensive list of requirements, “the synthetic turf manufacturer must provide documentation outlining their product lifetime recycle/reuse program. All material must be able to be cradle-to-cradle certified, and demonstrate 100 percent closed loop recyclability,” according to the list of requirements. The list also states that recycling must come at no cost to MVRHS.

Included in the removal and recycling requirements, Huntress said, any synthetic turf vendor retained for the project must commit to removing, reclaiming, and recycling the product at the end of its useful life, at no cost to the MVRHS.

Prior to final acceptance of a bid, the list of requirements states that the vendor will set up an escrow-secured guarantee by placing $50,000 into an escrow account at an institution backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). That account will be held jointly by the high school and the manufacturer, then those funds will be released back to the manufacturer upon successful recycling of the turf. If the manufacturer cannot recycle the product, the high school will be entitled to those funds.

There is a change.org petition circulating that advocates for the field proposal, and more than 700 student athletes, MVRHS alumni, parents, and coaches have signed on. “We believe, in consideration of climate change and environmental concerns, this project supports the reduction of plastic, as it is made from recycled materials and will be recycled! We think that is a good message for our youth and our community!” the petition reads, although independent studies have not yet confirmed either of these statements. 

According to an update to the petition, the goal will be set to 5,000 signatures once the initial 1,000 signatures are acquired. 

Diana Conway, president of Safe Healthy Playing Fields, said assuming a recycling facility will be built in the U.S. within the synthetic turf’s useful lifespan is “a roll of the dice with very bad odds. Where are the evidence-based pilot or starter programs in the United States? Where is the timeline that shows how and when this type of facility might be constructed?” she said.

Conway said any guarantee of end-of-life responsibility should be substantiated by specifics regarding which facility will be used, and when it will be available. 

Farber concludes her letter by saying that there should be verifiable, concrete information available to the public surrounding any possible recycling facilities.