Is Recycled Rubber Mulch Safe for Playgrounds?

Growing up, playgrounds were the peak of many memories made. Whether that was a break during the school day for recess or going with friends and family on a spring day outing, the creativity and friendships made were magical. For me, those memories all have that distinct sensory memory of wooden mulch. However, for kids nowadays, that sensory experience is rubber mulch more often than wooden mulch. This rubber mulch is made from old recycled tires in an effort to reduce the number of tires in landfills. In 2013, 233 million scrap tires were generated. Out of that 233 million, 8% (about 17.5 million) were processed for playground surfacing. Not only does this help in recycling, but rubber mulch looks better than wooden mulch. Along with this, rubber mulch seems to be more springy and forgiving than traditional wooden mulch. However, with the rise of popularity in rubber mulch, comes a rise in concern of chemicals found in the rubber material from parents and guardians and if it could be harmful to their children. In this article, we will explain the pros and cons of rubber mulch to help you make the correct decision for your child.

Positives of Rubber Mulch

Loose-fill rubber mulch, aside from looking better than traditional wooden mulch, is comparable in price. Upfront, the cost might be a little higher due to the quality of materials. The cost of installation will vary based on the area you choose to fill in but overall is cheaper than poured-in-place that ranges from $10-$15 per square foot. Rubber mulch is in the $5-$7 per square foot range. Compared to traditional wooden mulch, the lifespan of rubber mulch is far longer, which can help on the cost side of it all.
Rubber mulch offers many benefits, one being a safer and more forgiving cushion to an accidental fall. According to ASTM F1292 standards, rubber materials offer a safe impact when installed at the proper depth to meet critical fall height requirements. It is believed that it can offer protection to a fall up to 12 feet. With rubber mulch being made from recycled tires, one of the main concerns is the leftover debris that is often found in tires. To combat this, the tires are shredded, sifted through, and then passed thoroughly through a high-powered magnet to remove any foreign objects, debris, or wires that may be leftover.
As mentioned before, rubber keeps its shape, color, and absorbance much longer than traditional wooden mulch. The standard lifespan of rubber mulch is around 10 years before a replacement is required. Seeing that rubber is not biodegradable, there is less risk or concern about mold, decomposition, or general health concerns that affect long-term cost.

Concerns of Rubber Mulch

We have covered the basis for what makes rubber mulch safer when it comes to fall protection. Along with fall protection, you eliminate the risk of splinters, scratches, and other factors that come with wooden mulch. The main concern with rubber mulch though is the natural concern that there are dangers associated with chemicals that go into rubber. The California Integrated Waste Management Board has performed extensive research and testing that deemed the rubber materials safe considering that all the chemicals that could be considered carcinogens occur in levels far below the minimum “acceptable level”.

According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection:
“After reviewing the information available, with the possible exception of allergic reactions among individuals sensitized to latex, rubber and related products, there was no obvious toxicological concern raised that crumb rubber in its intended outdoor use on playgrounds and playing fields would cause adverse health effects in the normal population.”
As you can see, aside from special exceptions such as children with latex allergies, the material is considered safe for the general population. With that being said, you should always check that the system you choose meets playground surfacing standards set by IPEMA and ASTM.

Concerns of Wood Mulch

Schools and parks still choose to use wooden mulch despite there being no substantial evidence showing that there are health risks connected with rubber mulch. While wood mulch protects against falls better than gravel and sand and is certainly less expensive, it still has its concerns. Uncertified wooden mulch is susceptible to splinters, mold, and freezing in cold and wet conditions which negatively impacts the effectiveness of protecting children. It is important to mention that some wooden mulch is treated with chemicals like chromated copper arsenate to help in restaurants to pests and decay.
Wooden mulch does not hold up as well as rubber mulch and calls for more frequent replacement than other types of mulch. It is more susceptible for weeds to grow in than rubber mulch which requires more upkeep and opens the possibility of weed-killing chemicals to be used which is another hazard for children that use the playground.

Conclusion

Wooden mulch, while cheaper installation, calls for more frequent replacement, offers less fall protection and prevention from splinters and general hazards. Rubber mulch, initially a little more expensive is less often replaced, offers better fall protection, and looks better for longer. It is important to note that all surfacing should be certified by IPEMA as meeting ASTM standards for playground safety. With this information and specification of both options, you can feel confident in making the appropriate choice for the safety of your children.