By Mary Helen Sprecher

Nobody wants to say it out loud, but it’s true: people are still leery of the crumb rubber used in synthetic turf fields.

And the unease remains, despite research to the contrary, according to the Synthetic Turf Council (STC), which serves as a clearinghouse for the more than 50 studies that have addressed various concerns on synthetic turf, including those conducted by local, state and federal agencies.

“In each case,” notes a statement from STC, “study results have shown no elevated health risks associated with synthetic turf or its components. For schools that have conducted their own analysis in the past year, those who report their findings have all found there is no research that validates a plausible link between crumb rubber and cancer.”

But faced with a public that still backs away from the idea of crumb rubber, the industry has undergone a seismic shift, with manufacturers bringing out a number of infills as an alternative to rubber. And who can really blame them? There are an estimated 11,000 synthetic fields in the US, and sooner or later, they are all going to need updates, replacement and more. That means more inquiries about what else is available on the market. And while many may make the decision to stick with crumb rubber, others may investigate alternatives.

So what are some of the new infills out there? SportsTurf has made it easy for you by listing them below. It is essential to note, however, that this is by no means a complete list. In addition, new systems are under development constantly.

Some of these systems are proprietary, meaning they are copyrighted; others are available on the common market. They are listed below with an eye to explaining briefly what goes into each system; however, this is not meant to be a comparison of how fields perform since many systems are simply too new to have extensive data.

Green-Coated SBR Crumb Rubber: This is a system that uses crumb rubber infill; that infill is simply encapsulated in colorants, sealers or anti-microbial substances.

Coolplay V2: Coolplay uses a special cork topdressing that replaces the layer of crumb rubber used in most fields. It is combined with other materials as well.

US Greentech Envirofill: This product uses a rounded quartz core that is then coated with a polymer.

Organic (Cork-Based) Systems: These systems are made of 100% cork that is derived directly from cork trees.

Ecomax: This system uses an extruded composite of recycled turf and thermoplastic elastomer (TPE).

Zeofill: This is a 97.6% pure Clinoptilolite zeolite, a product based on volcano ash that landed on purified water. It is a product that has seen popular use in dog parks.

Nike Grind: Another one of those proprietary systems mentioned earlier, this is a product containing rubber from running shoes.

Organic (Fiber-Based): This is a field that includes infill primarily made out of coconut husks, peat and rice husks.

TPE (Thermoplastic Elastomer): TPEs are elastomers with both thermoplastic and elastomeric properties.

Again, these are a few of the alternatives out there. Others are available, and you can pretty much rest assured that plenty more are in development.

So what’s the bottom line? The bottom line, of course, is that alternative infills are growing in popularity, and field builders are gaining experience with them. Those who are in the market for a new field, or for a replacement field, and who have become interested in an alternative system, should be sure to ask the important and relevant questions that would be asked regarding any sports surface:

  • What is the cost for this system?
  • How readily available is it? Can it be ordered easily?
  • What is the warranty on this product? What is and is not covered? Who will address any problems?
  • What pile height is recommended for this system?
  • Does it require a shockpad? (Some do, some do not, but you should ask since this can affect the total cost.)
  • Where does the infill come from?
  • How much maintenance does this system need on a daily, weekly, monthly, etc. basis?
  • What specific type of equipment will be needed to maintain it?
  • What can I expect from this system? For example: what can I expect over the first few weeks or months? Will there be migration of infill? Will it pack down over time and become firmer? How long will that take? How often does it need irrigation? How does it respond to heavy rains? Will this system look, feel or smell any different to my athletes?
  • Does it hold heat?
  • Is this product recommended for my geographic area?
  • Will this product hold up to the type of use I expect it to get? Is there any type of activity that is not recommended?
  • What is the protocol for end-of-life for this product? Can it be recycled? How should it be disposed of? Who do I call?

That sounds like a lot of questions, but a new surface, whether for a tennis court, a gymnasium floor or a sports field, is always a big decision. You want to make sure you get what is best for your facility, your athletes, your budget and those who will be maintaining the field.

A few other points:

Many new infills are more expensive than crumb rubber; this is the case with many newer products on the market, and the sports industry is not exempt, obviously.

In addition, many of the new systems on the market lack long-range performance data. This is not a criticism of any one system; it is simply a fact since many of them are first-generation products. They may, in fact, provide excellent performance, but because they are still so new, there have not been as many long-range studies. It is a sure bet that such studies will become available over time, and that they will be made available to potential buyers.

Seek advice from a professional sports contractor and in particular, one who has extensive experience in sports fields. The American Sports Builders Association, for example, offers its Certified Field Builder (CFB) program, which is a voluntary certification for those who wish to demonstrate their knowledge of sports facility design and construction. The Certified Field Builder program, in fact, includes two other certifications: CFB-N (for those specializing in natural grass fields) and CFB-S (for those specializing in synthetic fields.) The CFB designation indicates knowledge of both types of fields. Information on the Certified Field Builder program is available on the American Sports Builders Association website. In addition, find out if there is a licensed design professional in your area who has been working with sports facilities. The experience that can be brought to the table by sports specialists can help you make the best decision possible.

Find out if others in your area, such as athletic directors, field managers or sportsplex administrators have experience with fields with alternative infill. Get their feedback and recommendations.

So, given the options, is there any recommendation as to the right field? As always, the right field is what is right to the buyer, the athletes who use it and those who maintain it.

Mary Helen Sprecher is a free lance writer who provided this piece on behalf of the American Sports Builders Association, a non-profit association helping designers, builders, owners, operators and users understand quality sports facility construction. The ASBA sponsors informative meetings and publishes newsletters, books (including the publication, Sports Fields: A Construction and Maintenance Manual. It also offers its voluntary Certified Field Builder program. Available at no charge is a listing of all publications offered by the Association, as well as the ASBA’s Membership Directory. Info: 866-501-ASBA (2722) or www.sportsbuilders.org.

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