Ever since playgrounds were first conceptualized, they’ve been evolving in terms of design and substance. What once began as a hub for imbuing good behavior, playgrounds have evolved into a space of limitless possibilities, where kids can foster their creativity and learn through fun and play. But playgrounds offer kids more than just a recreational outlet-they promote physical activity and foment cognitive skills, inspire adventure and encourage exploration, and build the confidence and social skills needed to make for well-adjusted adults.
As advancements in technology and sustainability have revolutionized nearly every industry, the manufacturing of commercial and residential playgrounds have aptly followed suit. In fact, the materials used to construct playgrounds have changed considerably over the years. Today’s market includes systems built from a wide range of materials, such as recycled steel and aluminum, following advancements in structural and reinforcement construction. Over the past two decades, the overall steel recycling rate has steadily increased, lowering the industry’s carbon footprint while maintaining the metal’s integral physical properties.1
Another traditional building material that has garnered support from environmental groups is ethically harvested wood. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood, as well as the more readily available Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)-certified wood, fulfill manufacturers’ need for forest products without compromising their ecosystems. Although both certifications ensure responsible forest management, they compete within the market with heedlessly harvested product, often making them a more expensive alternative for playground manufacturing.
In addition to these new adaptations of conventional building materials, post-consumer high-density polyethylene (HDPE) recycled plastic lumber is perhaps the most dexterous choice for production. HDPE is among the most commonly used plastics in the United States, and its immense capabilities are transforming the manufacturing of commercial and residential playgrounds. In fact, it is so durable even the U.S. military is utilizing recycled HDPE to build bridges strong enough for tanks to travel on.2
Becoming a more environmentally sound industry is paramount, but it is equally as important that recycled building components present a safe, enduring substitute for the materials that they’re replacing. HDPE recycled plastic lumber does just that; providing a durable, low-maintenance, weather-resistant material that resists rot, repels heat, and preserves color stability.
In addition to providing a greener alternative for traditional playgrounds, HDPE allows play spaces to be built in virtually any environment without the threat of deterioration, including wetlands, coastal regions, and areas of egregious temperatures. This advantage begets the concept of natural playgrounds, which encourage kids to engage with and in natural elements. Natural playgrounds help instill the importance of play during the formative years of childhood, and according to a recent study from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, spaces that incorporate natural elements are more beneficial to children and will inspire more play.3
While recycled materials boast innumerable properties that make them ideal for playground manufacturing, their greatest attribute lies in the reduction of resource consumption and pollution. HDPE recycled plastic lumber effectively utilizes millions of recycled milk jugs, plastic bags, and water bottles that would otherwise end up in landfills. Additionally, it emits no harmful emissions during production, unlike some of its traditional manufacturing counterparts.4
But structures aren’t the only part of the playground that are going green. Site furnishings, shading, shelters, and even surfacing products are emulating a more environmentally-friendly fabrication. Tough, unyielding coverage options are becoming obsolete, with 100% post-consumer content available in the form of poured-in-place rubber, synthetic turf, wood fiber surfacing, and rubber tiles, all befitting a safer and more sustainable alternative. These low-maintenance products are impervious to extreme temperatures, can withstand frequent foot traffic, and don’t require mowing, watering, or other costly upkeep.
As the playground manufacturing industry continues to benefit from eco-friendly advancements in construction and engineering, one could easily infer that the vast majority of playgrounds today have been constructed from sustainable materials like HDPE. However, according to reports from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, almost one-half of public playground equipment is constructed primarily of metal; of that allotment, nearly 80% is more than 10 years old and is not distinguished as recycled content.5 Only a small percentage is listed as plastic, and there are no definitive numbers regarding what type of plastic the playgrounds have been constructed from.
In the same US Consumer Product Safety Commission report, a substantial percentage of public equipment was listed to be in fair condition, and described as “rusted, broken, scarred, or abused.”5 Yet playgrounds manufactured from HDPE do not suffer any of these impairments. They’re uniquely fabricated to prevent vandalism and graffiti. They resist rust and will never delaminate, chip, or absorb water like traditional materials. And unlike the playgrounds of yesteryear (which unfortunately remain prevalent throughout parks, day care facilities, apartment complexes, and more), they have the ability to contain additives such as flame retardants and UV stabilizers to keep them looking new for a lifetime.
It is our job as purveyors of play to provide the best commercial and residential playgrounds for kids to enjoy. Constructing safe spaces that engage children’s minds and bodies is the best way to ensure that they’re getting the full intellectual, emotional, social, and physical benefits of play. Playgrounds built from recycled components will sustain and provide a safe play environment for generations to come. By crafting playgrounds from eco-friendly materials, we’re teaching our children the true value of our environment and allowing them the opportunity to experience it firsthand.
- Recycle-Steel.org (2010, February 20). Steel Recycling Rates at a Glance.
- Schwartz, Ariel (2009, November 13). Would You Feel Safe Driving Across a Recycled Bridge? Fast Company. Retrieved from http://www.fastcompany.com/1451763/would-you-feel-safe-driving-across-re...
- University of Tennessee at Knoxville (2012, October 11). Natural playgrounds more beneficial to children, inspire more play, study finds.
- United States Environmental Protection Agency (2011, December). Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States.
- US Consumer Product Safety Commission (2012, July 23). Special Study: Injuries and Deaths Associated with Children’s Playground Equipment.
About the Author
John Ogden is the President of PDPlay, a manufacturer of recycled plastic playground equipment, site furnishings, natural playgrounds and playground safety surfacing. Over the course of his 20+ year career, John has overseen numerous successful initiatives for a range of businesses from ventures at their earliest stage of development to Fortune 500 companies. John’s career includes work in the public sector as a legislative aide in the United States Senate and co-founding a boutique winery in Sonoma.