PORTSMOUTH, N.H.—When a beginning architect became smitten with a young schoolteacher back in 1972, he designed a solution for her students' problem.
They needed a playground, but the school had a budget of just $100 for it, Kit Klews recalled.
"She was a very attractive woman, so I had a lot of incentive to figure out a way to build a playground for her kids," he said, chuckling.
The ideas he came up with—turning scrap tires into creative play structures and enlisting volunteers to eliminate labor costs—created a playground kids love to bounce around in.
Mr. Klew's success didn't hurt his quest to win the teacher's hand in marriage as she became Mrs. Noele Klews. And recycling discarded tires into community-built playgrounds became the core concept of the company he founded, Learning Structures Inc.
Since incorporating in 1976, the company has custom-designed and supervised the volunteer construction of more than 500 playgrounds around the country. Recent inquiries to the firm's Web site (www.learningstructures.com) from Asia, Africa and South America have spurred talk of exporting the concept around the globe, particularly to developing nations, Mr. Klews said.
Recycled materials became a bigger component of LSI playgrounds in the early 1990s, when the company began using Trex, a post-consumer recycled plastic and wood fiber composite, for decking, siding and rails, Joseph Cicirelli said. He joined LSI in 1989 and purchased the company from Mr. Klews this year.
Mr. Klews, who stayed on as senior designer, said LSI also uses recycled high density polyethylene for slide beds and tunnels.
"About 25 to 30 percent of the materials we use are recycled," Mr. Cicirelli said. "We anticipate that is going to grow significantly in the next three to four years and reach 50 percent or more."
Kindergarten teacher Kathy Yant helped organize the 200 volunteers who built the LSI playground at the Wellington School in Upper Arlington, Ohio, in May.
"I'm sure our science classes, as they talk about recycling, will go out to the playground to see how all of the recycled materials are incorporated," Ms. Yant said.
"People can have a preconceived misconception that old tires are grimy and dirty and ugly," Mr. Cicirelli said. "But when folks see what we do with them, they love it."
Tires also are shredded into chips for walkways and soft, safe landing areas, and processed into mats for handicapped and wheelchair access.
In Maryland, the Environmental Services Agency has sponsored eight LSI playgrounds, including five in state parks. "They're very popular. The kids have a great time," said Abby Pascual, an environmental specialist in the scrap tire division.
The state park projects average 300 whole and 2,000 shredded tires, she said. LSI typically uses 100 to 150 whole tires and several hundred shredded tires, Mr. Cicirelli said.
Ms. Pascual said the greatest environmental benefit is "raising awareness of the scrap tire problem, and showing the type of beneficial things you can do with them. That's really our purpose."
In a state trying to find ways to recycle more than 1 million tires per year, she said, "You don't get rid of that many tires in a playground, but it does open people's eyes to possibilities."
The average LSI playground is 14,000 to 18,000 square feet, costs $35,000 to $45,000, and is built over three days by 150 to 170 volunteers who cut the conventional price by more than half, Mr. Cicirelli said. "We estimate that if you spend $35,000 with us, you're getting the equivalent of about a $90,000 playground," he said.
Volunteer involvement and the community spirit it fosters have "become so important, they almost eclipse the cost savings and the final product," Mr. Klews said. "People tell us it was such a great experience."
"We don't have many opportunities in our communities anymore to band together for a significant project," Mr. Cicirelli said.