Make your local playground eco-friendly

Joan Bryna Michelson, special to

WASHINGTON – D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray recently broke ground for Play DC, a playground improvement project that will renovate 32 of the city’s 78 playgrounds.

Since kids run on, lay on, climb on and jump on playground equipment, the District’s new project prompted Green Connections Radio Chief Executive Officer Joan Michelson to discuss eco-friendly playgrounds.

What is eco-friendly playground equipment?

Eco-friendly playground equipment is made from recycled materials, is non-toxic and also complies with the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s playground safety codes.

From the raw materials, to the manufacturing process and even the life of the materials after they done being used, eco-friendly playgrounds safeguard those who make the playground equipment and those who use the equipment. In addition, pro- environmental play spaces protect the health of the planet.

Since schools and neighborhoods typically renovate playgrounds during the summer months, here are some tips or recommendations you can make to your local playground renovation team.

Safety First

Check the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) website for the playground safety guidelines and checklists, which are considered “the Bible of the industry,” according to Patty Davis of the CPSC.

The surface kids walk on and the weight-bearing capacity of the structure are the top safety issues in playgrounds. Estimate how many kids of what age and size will be playing on the space at once to gauge your weight-bearing needs.

Make sure the playground is age appropriate. There are different needs for kids ages 2-5 (a “tot lot”) than for kids ages 5-12. Different ages require different types of stimulation and muscle use.


Eco-friendly playgrounds consist of recycled and non-toxic materials. (Courtesy Safeplay Systems)

Request Recycled Materials

Both the playground surfacing and the equipment can be made from recycled materials.

Forty-four percent of emergency room-treated injuries from playgrounds are a result of falling, according to the CPSC. Therefore, a playground’s surface material is a key component to the overall space.

Eco-friendly surfacing is made from either recycled rubber, such as tires or sneakers, or from engineered wood fiber. Surfacing can also be a blend of both.

This type of surfacing costs more up front, but costs much less in maintenance and will last longer than other surfacing options. Rubber floor tiles are another type of recycled surfacing option, and often come with game patterns, such as hopscotch or foursquare.

Eco-friendly playground equipment is generally made from various types of recycled plastic (including milk cartons), engineered wood fiber and/or recycled aluminum. Because of the weight-bearing standards, most pieces of playground equipment have steel posts, and the decks and panels around the posts can be made from recycled materials.

Do your research when it comes to purchasing recycled materials for a playground. Check the CPSC website, review manufacturer’s planning guides and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Some manufacturers give customers a credit toward new equipment and can take the old equipment, too. Ask facility managers to recycle old equipment as it ages out of use.

Choose Non-Toxic Materials

Since kids are constantly touching — and licking — playground equipment, using non-toxic materials is an important consideration.

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) recently added standards for non-toxic recycled materials. Bottom line: Stay clear of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.s), both of which are potentially harmful.

Control quality

Quality is about safety and durability for your kids at play. Look for manufacturers that are certified by either the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) and/or the Cradle to Cradle Innovation Institute, which certifies that the product is PVC-free, among other standards.

Some playground manufacturers have U.S. Green Building Council LEED certified manufacturing plants, which pay attention to the product’s lifecycle, starting with the manufacturing process.

Water and Power

Water and power matter, too. If you want to maximize your playground’s environmental sensitivity, include water conservation measures, such as collecting water run-off and channeling it to irrigate the landscaping around the playground. If the playground has any lighting systems, request they be solar-powered or use LED bulbs.

Lifecycle Costs

When planning a renovation and comparing costs, include the surfacing and equipment, as well as lighting and landscaping. And remember to include maintenance.

The average school playground can range from $30,000 to $125,000. Eco-friendly materials may cost 5-15 percent more to purchase, but you’ll save in the long run on maintenance and buybacks, a program in which the manufacturers buy back their equipment when it ages out. You’ll also be protecting your kids, and the planet, from harmful chemicals.

Whether it’s in your backyard, your kid’s schoolyard or the neighborhood park, it’s your money at work, so make your wishes known.

It’s well worth taking the time and effort to make playtime safe for your kids’ health, as well as their safety and that of the environment.

Play Mart: Milk jugs into playgrounds

Joan Michelson is CEO of Green Connections Radio and a consultant on the green economy and cleantech. She can be reached at

Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter.

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