How Playworld Systems makes outdoor play sustainable

Playworld Systems, a leading manufacturer of imaginative playground and fitness equipment, is committed to measurably reducing its impact on the environment. The company’s aggressive action to eliminate polyvinyl chloride (PVC) helped Playworld Systems become the first and only playground manufacturer to have its products Cradle to Cradle Certified Silver.

McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) interviewed Curtis Cleveland, director of environmental and materials engineering of Playworld Systems. 

Tish Tablan: Why is sustainability important to your company?

Curtis Cleveland: Outdoor play is about getting communities in touch with one another and the environment. Our playground and fitness equipment is the focal point for tens of thousands of communities around the world, and we have tremendous respect for the natural environments with which our products co-exist. We feel responsible for making sure our equipment protects the health of our children and the environment to the greatest extent possible. 

Tablan: What was the first major environmental initiative your company tackled?

Cleveland: The company designed a pyramid of priorities for environmental initiatives, and the top priority was to eliminate any materials that had the potential to be harmful. We decided to switch away from plasticized PVC coating and towards a polyethylene-based coating. Carcinogenic dioxins can be released during the manufacturing and incineration of PVC. Phthalates used to soften PVC has been linked to neurological disorders, cancer and childhood obesity. We did not want to be a part of that value chain any more.

In order to achieve this, we had to design and build a machine that really had never been built before, and we had to test the new coating to make sure it provided the same level of protection from outdoor elements and could withstand heavy foot traffic. Even with unknown return on investment, Playworld Systems invested $2.5 million during a recession to complete the conversion fluidized-bed powder coating process that uses polyethylene as a replacement for PVC. We as a company felt it was the right thing to do.

As a result of these efforts, Playworld Systems led the industry in becoming the first to commit to eliminating PVC from its products and the company succeeded in becoming 99.999 percent PVC-free.

Tablan: What was next after eliminating PVC?

Cleveland: Our mission at Playworld Systems is to create safe and healthy environments for children to play. Eliminating PVC was just the beginning and we knew we could do more. The Cradle to Cradle Certified program already recognized our hard work to eliminate PVC since the material is banned from the certification program. It also provided us with a comprehensive framework with benchmarks to improve in other areas, such as material reutilization and carbon management. 

We have made a company-wide commitment to follow the Cradle to Cradle principles and are proud to be the first and only playground and fitness equipment manufacturer to have Cradle to Cradle Certified products. In 2010, Playworld began partnering with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry to integrate Cradle to Cradle design principles throughout its product lines and working to source only safe and healthy materials that can be kept in infinite-use cycles. By the next year, 18 product lines were Cradle to Cradle Certified at the Basic level. Playworld Systems continued to make strides to improve its environmental footprint, and now the majority of the company’s 2011 catalog products (including 23 product lines) are Cradle to Cradle Certified at the Silver level.

Next page: Taking C2C beyond products