You've seen it in your neighborhood, at the park and in flowerbeds, too. Rubber surfaces and rubber mulch look good, last long and seem like a solution for busy gardeners. But are these rubber landscaping products really good for the environment?
*A Good Solution?
"I wanted to approve of it. I went to it hoping it was a good solution," says Leslie Land, a sustainable gardening author and blogger who, after researching rubber mulch, concluded, "I wouldn't recommend it."
She's concerned the rubber could contain trace toxic substances, since the rubber comes from recycled tires, which come into contact with lots of chemicals.
Carol Whitaker of Golden Shovel Landscapes agrees, saying, "I don't think getting toxins recycled into my yard, where pets and kids play, is a good thing."
But rubber mulch manufacturers -- such as LTR Products, which is the country's largest producer of rubber mulch -- say the products are good and green, too.
"It is nonallergenic, nontoxic and harmless to plants, pets and children," says Brad A. Pittam, general manager of LTR Products, a division of Liberty Tire Recycling.
The company, which owns Pinnacle Rubber Mulch's and American Rubber Technologies Inc.'s rubber mulch business, sells its rubber mulches at major general merchandise and home improvement retailers.
Pittam, who encourages consumers to "seek an eco-friendly alternative to wood mulch," says, "Rubber mulch saves trees from the shredder and keeps millions of tires out of the waste stream."
*Rubber Mulch vs. Wood Mulch
Rubber mulch is durable; it doesn't fade fast, and it lasts a long time. Pinnacle backs their rubber mulch products with a 12-year warranty.
"Rubber mulch is an innovative alternative to traditional wood mulch for landscaping and playground surfacing," says Pittam, who explains rubber mulch won't splinter, minimizes dust, is wind- and water erosion-resistant, and won't decompose.
"By not compressing or flattening out, rubber mulch provides excellent drainage," says Pittam. "Water continues to get to plants, but weed growth is controlled."
He estimates that gardeners can save money long term, too. "Compared with the expense of annually applying wood mulch, the upfront purchase of rubber mulch actually costs up to 65 percent less over a nominal five-year period," Pittam says. "As it does not absorb water, it also helps reduce water consumption while retaining moisture in the soil."
Rubber mulch is often used as "safety surfacing" in parks. "A 6-inch layer of rubber mulch will cushion a child's fall from as high as 16 feet," says Pittam.
Rubber mulch can help builders earn green credits from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, including "recycled content, regional materials, storm water design and water-efficient landscaping," says Pittam.
Opponents of rubber mulch are concerned that rubber mulch doesn't break down like traditional wood mulch.
"If it is not good for your plants, why are you using it?" asks Whitaker, who says mulch should provide plants and soil with main nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, as well as other nutrients like magnesium and sulfur.
Critics are also concerned about the chemicals and potential toxins the rubber from recycled tires could leach into the ground and water.
The Environmental Protection Agency has conducted studies on the safety of rubber surfaces. A recent study found that "the concentrations of components monitored in this study were below levels of concern."
"The amount of lead that EPA researchers found during the study was equal to or less than the amount of lead in residential floor dust," Pittam explains. "And zinc, which is a known tire additive, was found to be below levels of concern in air and surface tests."
*Alternatives to Rubber Mulch
"The nature of gardening is: It grows, responds to rain, responds to fertilizer, and that's as it should be," says Land.
Gardeners who don't want to keep replacing wood mulch that fades or wears down can choose organic materials, such as stones, which will last a long time.
"Stay with natural products," recommends Whitaker. "Anything that's a purely natural product is the way to go."