In this article I’ll explain exactly what “Rubber Playground Mulch” is, what different kinds there are, and what you need to know about them.
I’ll also address any safety concerns that you may have along the way.
We’ll then take a look at the various wood mulches used for playground ground cover, examining each one, then do a side by side comparison of the two most popular ground covers for playgrounds, it’s – Rubber Mulch Vs Wood Mulch.
Rubber playground mulch is a loose-fill playground cover material that is most commonly made from recycled tire rubber.
Is Rubber Playground Mulch Safe?
That’s a question up for much debate and it can be hard to get a straight answer. The people that claim rubber playground mulch is safe, sell rubber playground mulch
and the people who claim it’s unsafe, sell wood mulches or other traditional playground ground covers like pea gravel or sand.
After much research, I will say that rubber playground mulch made from recycled tires is moderately safe – Moderately.
But not as safe as traditional, natural mulches. To answer more in-depth, let’s look at how it’s made.
How is Rubber Playground Mulch Made?
The recycling process involves cleaning the tires and removing the steel wire inside before shredding them up.
The next process usually (hopefully) involves using a magnet system to “weed out” the pieces with steel wire still inside of them.
That’s basically it.
Rubber tire mulch is available in a variety of colors so if you’re going with a color option the next steps are painting and drying the “mulch”.
Safety Concerns and Hazards with Rubber Playground Mulch
One potential hazard with rubber playground mulch is that sometimes not all of the steel wire is removed from the tire during the recycling process, leading to puncture and cut injuries.
The amount of steel in the average recycled tire makes up about 15% of the tire’s weight. That’s a lot of steel!
Most reputable producers of rubber playground mulch use a magnet system to catch any pieces with the steel wire still remaining inside.
If you decide to go with rubber mulch, be sure to buy from a reputable brand that sells the smallest pieces as this will lessen the chances of any steel remaining.
You may want to consider getting a rubber mulch that carries an IPEMA certification. (International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association). For more information on this please read my article titled “What is Certified Playground Mulch – Clear Explanation“
Is Rubber Playground Mulch Toxic?
According to a study done by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which has endorsed the use of recycled rubber tire mulch on children’s playgrounds – found that the concentrations of materials that made up tire crumb were below levels considered harmful.
But the study also stated that due to its limited nature large diversity of materials used to make “tire crumb” no definitive conclusion could be reached.
Another study (tab opens in new window) by ChemRisk Inc., also concluded (in so many words) that Rubber Playground Mulch is not toxic.
There is still an ongoing study by EPA, and you can go check that out on their web site for more information if interested.
When it comes to wood mulch ground cover for your playground area you have 4 great choices
- Shredded Wood Mulch (Traditional Mulch)
- Wood Chips
- Bark Mulch
- Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF) aka Playground Chips
Let’s see what the differences are in each of these then we’ll compare them to Rubber Playground Mulch, considering these key factors
Shredded Wood Mulch
Also known as traditional wood mulch, this shredded wood mulch is usually seen in flower beds and around trees but also makes an excellent playground ground cover material.
It comes in a variety of colors and is sometimes treated, so make sure to get the all-natural untreated shredded wood mulch with no dyes.
Heavier than wood chips and bark mulch it can be a better choice, especially if you live in an area prone to flooding. Your only safety concern is that shredded wood mulch can give you a splinter.
Wood Chips are chopped, shredded and ground pieces of natural wood. Depending on where you get them, they can range in size from 1” to 5” and are smoother and less jagged than traditional shredded wood mulch, making it less likely to cause splinters.
They are also much lighter and may float away if your yard is prone to flooding. Be sure to get wood chips that are all-natural with no dyes.
Chopped and shredded pieces of tree bark that are lighter in weight than the traditional shredded mulch. Bark mulch decomposes at a slower rate than wood chips, making it last longer.
Like wood chips, Bark mulch is also a lighter ground cover material, and some pieces can float away if your playground area is prone to flooding.
Engineered Wood Fiber (Playground Chips)
Engineered wood fiber (EWF) also known as Playground Chips are made from pieces of processed wood, which in this case means the wood is “pulverized” to a fibrous consistency then sorted by strict size specifications.
EWF comes 100% from the tree and can be made from hard and/or softwoods. For the best quality you should purchase “100% virgin wood” EFW.
One of the downsides with this material is that due to it’s “thin” build it breaks down quicker than the other wood mulches. For a comprehensive guide on EWF pleach check out this article.
Comparison – Rubber Mulch Vs Wood Mulch
Now let’s look at the Pros and Cons of each, then compare price and durability.
Pros and Cons of Rubber Mulch for Your Playground
Pros of Rubber Mulch
- Lasts a very long time – You will probably never have to replace this material. The color usually stays true for around 10 years, then it may start to fade a bit
- Heavier than wood mulches – This means it is less likely to blow or float away in bad weather
- Highest fall protection – Rubber mulch offers the best shock absorbency of any playground ground cover
- Recycling – Since rubber mulch is a recycled material, you are giving this material another purpose, and instead of it taking up room in a landfill or being disposed of improperly -which can be harmful to the environment- it’s being put to use
Cons of Rubber Mulch
- Lasts a very long time – A double-edged sword for rubber mulch. It doesn’t decompose so one day you may have to take it back up and dispose of it
- Gets dirty – After long time use rubber mulch can get dirty and leave rubber marks on clothes and skin, especially on the bottoms of shoes, which can then be transferred to other surfaces
- Safety concerns – There are still ongoing studies being done to determine if this material is safe, and it’s known that rubber mulch made from recycled tires can contain contaminants
- Heat – Rubber mulch can get hot to the touch on a summer day in direct sunlight and it can also smell
Pros and Cons of Wood Mulch for Your Playground
Pros of Wood Mulch
- All Natural – Each of the 4 wood mulches we talked about earlier are made from 100% natural wood
- Cost – Wood mulches are more inexpensive than rubber mulch
- Variety – You have more options to choose from with wood mulch
- Environmentally friendly – It’s true that some treated and dyed wood mulches can contaminate the soil, but when you get all-natural wood mulches there is no contamination. Rubber mulch can contaminate the soil
Cons of Wood Mulch
- Doesn’t last as long – Wood mulches will not last as long as rubber mulch and will have to replenish
- Splinters – You can get splinters stuck in your hand, but this is just mostly true for the traditional shredded mulch
- Less fall protection – Wood mulches cannot offer the superior fall protection that rubber mulch does. However, it is still a safe ground cover for your playground area and will provide some shock absorption against falls
- Can float away – Wood chips and bark mulch are very light materials so can be washed away in a heavy rain.
Comparison Chart – Wood Mulch Vs Rubber Mulch
In this chart we examine each material’s
- Coverage Area Per Cubic Yard (Which I have converted into square feet with the recommended depth from the Nation Safety Council (NSA) already calculated in)
- Cost Per Cubic Yard
Final Thoughts and Considerations
Rubber mulch is your best low-maintenance, “set it and forget it” material. While it’s true there are still many safety concerns, the EPA is doing an ongoing study, and has endorsed this material to be used in children’s playground areas.
Wood mulches are still very popular and always will be. The fact that they are made from all-natural wood with no additives or chemicals is a huge plus for many people. While it’s true that wood mulches do not last as long as its competitor rubber mulch, they are cheap and easily attainable.
Wood chips can be gotten for free (or a big discount) if you call around to some different tree service companies in your area.
Another way to save on cost is to pick the material up yourself. If you have a pickup truck and/or trailer this is no problem. If you don’t, then the delivery fees are pretty reasonable. The most expensive part would be paying someone to install (spread) your newly acquired mulch.
Personally, I would not go with Engineered wood fiber (sometimes referred to as playground chips), because this material only lasts for 2 -3 years before breaking down and becoming a mess. While it’s true that this material doesn’t cause splinters, I just can’t see this being a good option when compared to the other playground mulches.
It is worth noting that there is a rubber playground mulch product that is not made from recycled tires. This is the “other kind” of rubber mulch I was referring to at the beginning of the article. The company -Jelly Bean Rubber Mulch- uses the cut-offs and scrap pieces of rubber tiles produced for school and hospital floors to make this mulch. It may be a little pricey, but if you have health and safety concerns over recycled tire mulch, and do not want to use wood mulch then they are worth checking out. I’m in no way affiliated with this company, but I do think it’s a great alternative.
I truly hope this article has helped you in some way, please stay safe and have fun!
What is certified playground mulch?
A playground ground cover material that has met specific requirements set by the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), and has been tested to ensure they meet or exceed those standards.
The (International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association) IPEMA certification process involves using a third-party to test the materials, IPEMA oversees the process and validates the playground surface material to ensure it meets or exceeds standards set by the ASTM, giving the product an IPEMA certification.
For more information on this please read my article titled “What is Certified Playground Mulch – Clear Explanation“