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There are so many factors to consider when creating a new playground! How do we make it engaging? How do we ensure it is aesthetically pleasing? Will the final project keep the community satisfied? In this article, we will look at answering the question, what playground materials are most environmentally sustainable?
All the materials used in playground structures do have quite different environmental footprints, and as responsible global citizens, it is something that needs consideration. Read on to learn more!
Timber is the only major building product that completely regrows and can be managed to produce a consistent supply over the long term. It also has the peculiar advantage that it has an important carbon sequestering function while it is in the growth phase, which is critically important to climate management, and a responsible timber industry is, therefore, a valuable asset.
Of course, the clear felling of old growth forests, sending native hardwoods overseas as wood chips, and loss of habitat through deforestation is clearly not sustainable. We would be somewhat cautious about using some native hardwoods in playgrounds because of uncertainty about their source. But it must be emphasised that white cypress is not harvested that way. For over 30 years, white cypress has been sourced from sustainably managed forests in South East Queensland, which the Queensland Government Forestry Department regulates.
White cypress is not grown in a typical clear felled plantation format but as a managed forest. The health of the forest is dependent on regular thinning, but only about one per cent of the managed areas are taken each year to maintain forest health, habitat and a sustainable supply of timber. These operations take place in line with strict environmental rules that protect wildlife habitat and other important ecological features.
It is also important to note that white cypress is a naturally termite resistant species, unlike other plantation grown softwood species, and is not chemically treated. It is, without doubt, an environmentally responsible choice of materials. Even at the end of its playground life, it can be chipped or mulched as a landscape material with no residual landfill.
Turning now to steel and aluminium, the raw mineral deposits for these remain plentiful, particularly here in Australia. Aluminium occurring as bauxite, is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, and the total reserves of crude iron ore worldwide were estimated to be approximately 180 billion metric tons in 2021, with fresh deposits and new technology continuing to emerge.
The biggest sustainability issue with these metals is in mining and processing. The emission intensity of the traditional steel making processes is high, so it is fundamental for the industry to continue the progression towards decarbonisation. The steel industry has made real progress, so producing one tonne of steel today requires just 40% of the energy it did in 1960 but is still a very high energy user. Aluminium also uses huge quantities of energy, somewhere in the region of 9 times what is used in steel. However, these facts have to be weighed up against the duration of the material’s life cycle and its recyclability. Steel is the world’s most recyclable material. It can be recycled repeatedly without compromising on quality and then reused and repurposed.
Another interesting initiative currently proceeding is the donation of old metal playgrounds to third world countries globally. The ability to re-establish a playground for a second life is a huge sustainability plus for these materials. And even after providing years of enjoyment for these disadvantaged children, the materials still remain fully recyclable albeit decades later. Understandably we all carry concerns about the mining and manufacturing aspects of metals, particularly aluminium, but the immensely long-life cycle, together with the strength and suitability for purpose actually endorse the use of metals as a great sustainable choice.
Plastics are used in playgrounds in the form of roto-moulded parts such as slides and also as layered ply sheets for feature panels, roofs, and other colourful components. The raw materials used in producing plastic, such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, and crude oil, are plentiful, but they carry an environmental stigma principally from the combustion of these materials. However, their use in the manufacture of plastic is quite a different matter. Clearly, there are emissions in the manufacturing process itself, but once the material is processed, the resultant product is completely inert with absolutely no environmental consequences.
The real problem with plastic is then rather at the end of its life as it is not readily bio-degradable, and disposal becomes an issue. Although single-use plastic packaging requires ongoing action, plastic usage in playgrounds differs because it has a long-life application, and disposal only becomes a consideration after many years of use. Also, the solid form of plastic makes it possible to recycle it into products such as composite decking materials. An excellent example of its use as an alternative to timber can be seen in the Henley Brook project in this slide.
The playground manufacturing process also needs consideration. As an Australian manufacturer, we are already supporting the development of a sustainable industrial environment with significant recycling of waste materials both from the manufacturing process and following the demolition of older projects. The other very important initiative in our process is that a significant portion of our power generation is from our own 90 kw solar panel installation on the roof of our manufacturing facility, as can be seen in the aerial photograph.
This article is really only a brief overview of what is a rather complex subject. We haven’t even touched on the use of recycled rubber in playground surfacing, but clearly, the playground industry makes a significant contribution to the environment and sustainability even in that initiative. Granulated recycled rubber from car tyres makes up the impact absorption layer in this type of surfacing.
Just how much environmental or sustainability considerations influence the choice of materials will often depend upon the priorities of the stakeholders in a particular project. If you need more information or want to discuss sustainability considerations for your next playground project, speak to one of our playground experts today.