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How Playworld Systems makes outdoor play sustainable

PlayworldSystemsPlaygroundPlayworld 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.

Tablan: Describe the process involved in order for your company to meet the Cradle to Cradle Certified product standards.  

Cleveland: The company created a cross-functional team comprising representatives from quality, purchasing and environmental and materials engineering groups to help collect and manage the supply chain data needed for Cradle to Cradle Certified assessments in material health, material reutilization, renewable energy use, water stewardship and social responsibility. In order to achieve the Silver level of certification, at least 95 percent (by weight) of each product’s materials were audited by MBDC to identify chemicals of concern down to the 100 parts per million level. Playworld Systems worked with MBDC to contact over 125 suppliers and sub-suppliers to validate the safety of each material for human and environmental health. The company changed its purchase specifications to meet the stringent certification requirements and ended relationships with certain suppliers that were unable to meet the guidelines.

Through this exhaustive exercise with MBDC, Playworld Systems was able to eliminate neoprene (a material chemically related to PVC) from belt bridges and identify a safer polyethylene coating for high-traffic parts.

Tablan: In what other ways have you implemented Cradle to Cradle thinking into your company operations? 

Cleveland: Playworld Systems has a goal to create sustainable products that can be recycled again and again to encourage outdoor play for future generations. Our modular playground equipment was already designed for easy disassembly and recycling, and over 95 percent of the materials used in the products are recyclable when appropriate recycling facilities are available. Playworld Systems went even further to develop ways that supported our customers in recycling the products and keeping the valuable materials out of landfills. We provided instructions to all customers on how to recycle the play equipment when it has reached the end of its long, useable life. Playworld Systems also initiated and implemented an electronics take-back program for customers to assure that those components in the products can be recycled properly.

In addition to supporting our customers’ recycling efforts, we took steps to improve recycling in our facilities and in the community. Not only did we boost the recycling rate of our manufacturing waste to 95 percent, we recently started a “Recycle from Home” program that allows employees to bring in recyclables from home that are not accepted in municipal recycling streams. This successful program has diverted more than 11,250 pounds (over 5 tons) of materials from landfills since the program began in July 2012.

Tablan: What are the future sustainability goals your company aims to reach? 

Cleveland: Last year Playworld Systems’ headquarters and manufacturing facilities were LEED certified under the rating system for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance by the U.S. Green Building Council. We plan to continue to mitigate impacts from our building operations, and we are committed to continuing to reduce our carbon footprint. Our energy goal is to increase the efficiency of non-renewable energy use as a function of production level by 10 percent in the next three years.

Tablan: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

Cleveland: We’d like to thank MBDC for guiding Playworld Systems through the certification process and helping to bring our sustainability vision into greater focus. As a result, other organizations have also recognized our efforts. In 2012, Playworld Systems received an Evergreen Award in the sports recreation category from the GSA Integrated Workplace. We look forward to our ongoing work with MBDC as we continue to stay focused on our long-term sustainability efforts.

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