The sound of a swing set in use never gets old. If I use my imagination, I can still hear the predictable clicking noise of the swing chain knocking the foundational pole as a child kicks forward to new heights, and rocks back to gain steam for another go into the air. A properly built slide, with as many twists and turns as peaks and valleys, will elicit laughs and giggles from riders for hours. Climbing walls that lead to playhouses promise new adventures each time they are summited.
In short, playgrounds are a fantastic place for kids to have fun, be creative, and grow. It’s not a child’s job to identify harmful aspects of the play area. We as adults have a duty to keep children safe, because if we give our blessing for them to play on the surface and it’s not safe, who ultimately is to blame?
As the Founder and CEO of a playground safety surface company it’s been a pleasure to be part of the process of keeping kids safe. With the popularity of rubber tire mulch as a playground surface, you can get it at Lowes or Home Depot for example, and the national parental backlash that’s come with it (see stories by NBC, CBS, ABC), I felt like it’s a great time to discuss why rubber tire mulch is no longer the best choice for a playground surface. Here’s four reasons to look elsewhere.
Toxicity and Road Residue
To say road tires are toxic would be a stretch. Tires have been safely manufactured, sold, and used without any conclusive evidence that the product, or the environments they’re produced in, are toxic. Tires aren’t necessarily killing people. So why the toxicity concerns?
Contamination from roadways is the main culprit. This could include petrochemicals, lead contaminants from roadway paint, bare steel wire that’s as sharp as it is exposed, and more.
Complicating matters is the toxicity testing of tire rubber. You could send a random piece of rubber tire mulch from a playground surface to the lab and find that it tests positive for some type of containment or toxin. Take another random piece from the same surface, and send it off to the same lab, and find there are no toxic results to report. In other words, not all tire mulch will lead to toxin exposure, though some might. It just takes one tire made to less-than-ideal standards, domestically or abroad, to ruin an entire playground in terms of safety.
Pre-consumer vs post-consumer is a good way to view the toxicity issue.
Pre-consumer rubber, like we use in Jelly Bean, is exposed to elements we can control. In other words, we know what the product will look like, and that it’s non-toxic when it comes off the factory line for installation, as it is originally compounded for kids to play on.
Post-consumer, like rubber tire mulch, on the other hand, is something we can’t control when it comes to exposure. The tires might have encountered dangerous chemicals in their past life on roadways near and far.
Even at origin the tire producers aren’t viewing this product as a play surface for kids, but as something viable to carry the heavy loads of motor vehicles and cargo. The people putting these tires on the road are not worried about kids playing on it when they’re making it.
I’ve sold Jelly Bean as a replacement to clients that have been long time rubber tire mulch users. Their experience is that after 3 years of use the coating on rubber tire mulch starts coming off. It’s at this time the rubber gets brittle and begins breaking down. Again, as a post-consumer product it is manufactured to be inflated as a tire, not as something meant for surfacing. Whereas Jelly Bean is produced off of safety tiles that had the exact intention of use as we are repurposing it to be, leading to less degradation over time.
An EPA report expressed concern for “Heavy metals, oils, other toxic substances and debris from construction traffic and spillage can be absorbed by soil at construction sites and carried with runoff water to lakes, rivers and bays.”
Is it too much of a stretch to say the same toxins the EPA is worried about could make their way into tires, and eventually rubber tire mulch, that stay in constant contact with the very same roads that has the EPA concerned?
As someone involved in multiple facets of the rubber industry I understand the value in recycling of rubber. I just think it makes sense when dealing with children, the most vulnerable in our society, to look at what the recycled end product will be, and what potential hazards it might contain.
Tire mulch is painted after processing, and like most things that receive a coat of paint after initial development, the paint will not last. It will leach on clothes, and degrade over time. Further, as the paint wears off, the pollutants that were initially covered by the paint become exposed to kids.
Stories of kids coming home from the playground with black marks all over their clothing and shoes are all too prevalent now that rubber tire mulch is so heavily used on play surfaces. Parental concern typically starts here with the dirty kids, and then when you factor in the exposure to steel wire, and possibly toxins from roadways, it becomes a major concern for those charged after protecting their family.
When investing in a playground it makes sense to consider having kids leave the area with the same color clothing and footwear as when they arrived. Not just for the first year of use, but 5, 10, and 15 years down the line as well.
Even with the removal of most, as in 99% of wire, the standard rubber tire mulch user is left with up to 2lbs of steel wire per ton. That’s a lot of wire for kids to potentially come in contact with.
Wire is a term applied to many different types of fiber. So what exactly is this wire in tires? Called bead wire, it is high tensile-strength steel wire coated in brass or bronze. This wire works to keep the tire shape firm and allow for it to go on the wheels of vehicles. It is not soft or flexible, or anything you’d want your kids to encounter when running and tumbling on a playground. Or the small shreds of bare steel from belting to hold the tire together.
As far as playground surfaces go rubber tire mulch is in the middle. Products like tree mulch and sand might cost less. Poured-in rubber and safety tiles typically cost more.
The term cost is often associated with monetary value. As in what’s the cost of the can of soda at the store? Or the cost of buying tickets to the latest Hollywood blockbuster. But what about long term cost? If you look at the compounding cost of a product like tree mulch you’ll see what I mean here.
At a rough estimate of $220 per ton, on the surface tree mulch appears to be much cheaper than rubber surfacing like Jelly Bean. With many playground owners reporting a near 100% replacement cost each year with tree mulch, the costs add up quick.
As the chart above shows, five years in you’re surpassing the cost of long-lasting rubber surfaces like Jelly Bean per ton. With our 20 year warranty you are promised not to spend a penny more for your product than your initial spend, unless you wanted to order more to increase thickness or build a larger area out.
If you kept wood mulch for 20 years the aggregate cost would be over $4,000 a ton. That’s a lot of money for a surface that’s known to contain allergens, splinters, and can diminish to the point that it’s not up to spec, potentially leaving you liable if a fall were to occur.
While rubber tire mulch might not degrade as quick as tree mulch, the stories I’ve heard about the three year mark should be a cautionary tale. Not only due to the brittle degradation, but also to the loss of the paint coat that opens up greater potential for chemical exposure.
One alternative to rubber tire mulch for your playground surface is Jelly Bean.
Jelly Bean is one of the only surface suppliers to offer financing, with a lease option that offers full price tax savings immediately, while spreading the payments of the product over five years, making the purchase of your playground surface even more cost effective.
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