So, you’ve heard of “playground mulch” and now want to know how it’s made – well, you’re in the right place!
First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. When people talk about “playground mulch” they are usually referring to EWF (engineered wood fiber), or rubber mulch.
Today we will cover the process of making EWF playground mulch, the materials used to make it and the different kinds of EWF playground mulch available on the market.
I’ll also list the pros and cons of using this material as a playground ground cover material and address any safety concerns you may have. If interested in how rubber playground mulch is made, please read this article.
EWF (engineered wood fiber) playground mulch is made by chipping and shredding various soft and/or hardwoods into chips that meet certain size specifications, the wood chips are then further processed into a fibrous consistency using a machine such as a hammermill.
Not all EWF playground mulches are the same, there are many factors that determine a quality and safe product. Before we look at those factors let’s look further into how it’s made.
From Whole Wood to EWF
The whole wood is chipped and shredded into something similar to wood chips, only a bit smaller. Now in this stage, there isn’t much of a difference between this and wood chips, except size.
Next the wood chips are ran through a “Mill” (usually Hammermill) or similar machine.
The milling process crushes and smashes the wood chips turning them into the fibrous material we know as EWF Playground Mulch.
Unlike other Engineered Wood products such as particleboard and fiberboard, there are no adhesives added to this product, as those adhesives and binders can contain harmful chemicals.
Are All EWF Playground Mulches Safe?
No, not all of these products are safe. The main factors that determine a safe product are
- Wood. Is the wood used “100% virgin” (straight from the tree), or wood scraps such as old pallets and crates?
- Size and Quality. Is the wood chipped, shredded and machined properly to ensure size and quality that adheres to safety standards?
- Free of Harmful and Hazardous Materials. Is the wood free of harmful foreign objects like scrap metal and free of chemicals?
- Certifications. Is this product certified by IPEMA (International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association) and/or ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials)? This ensures that the product has been tested thoroughly and meets strict safety and quality standards. For more information on this, please read my article titled “What is Certified Playground Mulch – Clear Explanation“.
Low-Quality EWF Playground Mulch
Low-quality EWF (engineered wood fiber) playground mulch will usually consist of scrap wood (old pallets, crates, etc.), and byproducts of the lumber and paper industries (wood cut-offs, low-quality wood, etc.).
The reason you don’t want this material is that there is no way to ensure it is free of harmful chemicals as these products are usually not tested, regulated and have no certifications from IPEMA (International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association) or the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials).
Using old pallets and wood products means nails, staples and other foreign objects, and even though most reputable manufacturers use a “magnet system” to remove these sharp metals, sometimes they can be missed.
The particle sizes can vary in these products also, EWF playground mulch that has been properly manufactured meets standards for particle size. The particle size greatly affects the fall protection provided by this material.
To avoid purchasing these lower quality products, just make sure the product is certified by IPEMA and/or the ASTM. If certified just by the ASTM, make sure the testing was done by a reputable third-party. If you want to know more about this please read my article titled “What is Certified Playground Mulch – Clear Explanation“
High-Quality EWF Playground Mulch
High-quality EWF playground mulch is made from “100% virgin wood” (straight from the tree) and free of bark, leaves and other materials. The whole tree is sent through a huge “lathe-like” machine which removes the bark and outer layers of the tree before being made into chips.
You’ll see products that consist of just hardwoods and others that use a blend of hard and soft woods.
The “advertised” advantage of hardwood EWF mulch is “that because of the tighter grains in hardwood this product is less likely to give you a splinter“. But I wouldn’t worry about this, you are unlikely to get a splinter from any quality EWF playground mulch.
A product that has an IPEMA (International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association) and/or ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) certification will have a critical fall height rating, and must pass high quality and safety standards set for:
- Wood particle size, consistency, and purity
- Ability to drain properly
- Heavy metal concentrations below what is considered hazardous to children
- Must meet ASTM 1292 (ASTM 1292 is a safety standard for falls and can determine a “critical fall rating”)
Pros and Cons of EWF Playground Mulch
Let’s start with the Pros
- Safety. EWF mulch has the highest fall rating. EWF beats all other wood mulches when it comes to safety
- Can be Certified. This material can carry an IPEMA (International Playground Manufacturers Association) and/or ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) certification and is also ADA compliant. This is huge, because as we discussed earlier, this ensures a quality, safe product that is free off harmful materials and chemicals
- Less desirable to termites. Termites tend to go after larger pieces of wood, making this material less desirable to them. That still doesn’t guarantee you won’t get a termite infestation, but the odds are significantly lower
Now for the Cons
- Price. Usually more expensive than other wood mulches such as shredded wood mulch, wood chips, and bark mulch. The average price is $35 – $55 for 1 square yard, that’s a 27′ x 27′ area filled 12” deep (That’s the recommended depth set by the NSC (National Safety Council)
- Longevity. This material will not last as long as other wood mulches. It’s a smaller and thinner material, so breaks down much quicker, and overtime can take on more of a “sawdust-like” consistency. And because this material doesn’t last as long, it will require regular top-offs (usually bi-yearly) adding to the overall cost. The average lifespan for EWF playground mulch is around 2 -3 years
Other Considerations and Final Thoughts
Now that you know how EWF playground mulch is made hopefully this information can help you in making a decision for your playground cover material.
The two main takeaways from this are Safety and Longevity. While this is the safest wood mulch you can get for your playground area it also is the least durable.
A lifespan of 2 -3 years is not much when compared to other playground mulches, but with bi-yearly top-ups, you can keep your area fresh, safe, and looking good.
1 cubic yard of EWF playground mulch costs on average of $35 – $55 and will cover an area of 27′ x 27′ filled 12” deep. For a top-up, you will usually only need 4” – 6” of new material.
After 5 -7 years of having this material in your play area, you may have to take out the old material and start all over. This is because the material is “thin and springy” (which is what gives this material its great fall protection) and decomposes faster than other wood mulches.
Is mold a concern when using wood playground mulch?
Yes, it can be, especially if you live in a climate that is hot and humid or if you have drainage issues.
The most common type of mold that can grow on wood mulch is “Slime Mold”, which is not harmful unless eaten. Steps you can take to prevent mold besides ensuring proper drainage is to regularly rake and fluff the mulch in your playground area.
To remove the mold, simply remove all mulch affected then rake and fluff the whole area. If the problem persists then check out my article titled “Mold in Playground Mulch – How to Get Rid of it For Good” for some easy solutions.
What is rubber playground mulch?
A loose-fill playground cover material that is most commonly made from recycled tire rubber. For more in-depth information, please read my article titled “What is Rubber Playground Mulch – Rubber Mulch Vs Wood Mulch“.