Making play PVC-free

Playground manufacturer draws a line in the sand

By Kate Bachman

Green Manufacturer, May 23, 2012

Matt Miller, CEO of Playworld, Lewisburg, Pa., made the pivotal decision four years ago to dramatically convert his company’ paint coating processes to eliminate PVC.

When you are a U.S. manufacturer of children's imaginative playground and fitness equipment, you are held to a higher standard and undergo a higher level of scrutiny than the average manufacturer, especially in this post-China-lead-paint era. Because children have a higher vulnerability than adults with exposure to any substance, and because young children experience play equipment and toys in many ways (e.g., via the mouth), products that are manufactured for use by children in the U.S. must meet high protective standards set by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Factor in a genuine concern for the environment, for the children who are your end-use customers—not to mention the people who make your products—and a third-generation family dynamic, and business just can't be "business as usual." After all, the children who play on your products may be one of your own.

Matt Miller, CEO of Playworld, Lewisburg, Pa., made the pivotal decision four years ago to dramatically convert his company's coating process to eliminate PVC.

"The environmental movement has become very mainstream. And I believe that in the future, companies are going to have to have social and environmental platforms to stand on if they are going to be viable businesses, because people care about where they are sourcing their products," Miller said. Polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC, has been the subject of many studies evaluating its potential environmental and health dangers and as many controversial dialogues. When PVC has been "plasticized," or softened with phthalates, in particular, it has been linked to additional health hazards, including neurological disorders, cancer, and even childhood obesity. The playground equipment-maker had been coating some of its assemblies with plasticized PVC.

"When we decided to look at our environmental initiative in a really comprehensive way, we asked, What's our strategy?" Miller said. "We designed a pyramid of priorities. We said the first thing we're going to evaluate is our materials and we're going to eliminate anything that we think has the potential to be harmful. And that's why one of our first big initiatives was to remove PVC. "There's a lot of debate about PVC and its impact on the environment," Miller continued. "People look around at all the PVC in pipes and siding on homes and shower curtains and say, 'If this were harmful, why would it be allowed?'" Miller acknowledges that PVC has not been proven to be harmful after it has been manufactured and before its end of life.

"So we could have taken a position that this isn't harmful to children. But we also believe that during the manufacturing process, and sometimes in the disposal, when it's incinerated, dioxins can be released. And we just felt that we didn't want to be part of that value chain.

"It's not what our company stands for. We're all about getting children outdoors, in touch with nature, into an environment that's free of constraints, to discover their physical, social, mental well-being. We really believe that play is not a luxury. Play is formative," Miller said.

"So being part of that value chain didn't make sense to us. We really felt that it would be delivering the wrong message if we didn't pay attention to sustainability."

Playworld is the only major playground equipment-maker in the U.S. that has made the conversion from PVC coatings to polyethylene, Miller believes, although toymaker Hasbro announced in December 2011 that it was phasing out PVC-based packaging.

"Are you really standing up for the environment if you continue to use PVC?" Miller asked.

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