When it comes to landscaping, gardening or crop production, there are many options for mulch. When the need is for inorganic mulches, the primary choice comes down to plastic or rubber. Determining which type of mulch will fulfill your needs is a matter of understanding the benefits and drawbacks of each before you buy.
Advantages of Rubber Mulch
According to the Wall Street Journal, 80 used tires can make one cubic yard of rubber mulch, making it a resourceful way to recycle. Rubber mulch does not attract termites or carpenter ants like wood mulch does. It does not get washed away by rain. It is useful as an under-layment in playgrounds, running tracks and obstacle courses.
Disadvantages of Rubber Mulch
The Wall Street Journal also states that a study by the University of Washington reported that "rubber can leach chemicals that contaminate water and are harmful to marine life". Zinc can also be leached into soil over time which is bad for soils that already contain adequate amounts of soil. The zinc overload can harm shallow-rooted plants. Another potential problem is the use of steel-belted tires in the recycling process. Some wires are missed by the cleaning process and can cause pricks when working with rubber mulch. If used in a vegetable garden, chemicals like benzene, manganese, carbon black, latex, and others can conceivably be absorbed by the plants.
Advantages of Plastic Mulch
Depending on your needs, the color of plastic mulch can contribute to the soil's temperature. Black or clear plastic mulch absorb sunlight and warm the soil, making it warm earlier in the season. White plastic mulch reflects sunlight away keeping soil cooler. Plastic mulch retains moisture during dry spells and channels away excess moisture during periods of heavy rain, possibly reducing the amount of irrigation needed. Black mulch prohibits light from reaching the soil which in turn deters the growth of weeds. Fruits and vegetables do not come in contact the soil and the result is less fruit rot or scarring.
Disadvantages of Plastic Mulch
The main disadvantage of plastic mulch is its cost. It is more expensive than other mulch types. For large acreages, machinery is needed to layer and spread the plastic mulch, adding to the expense. Another distinct disadvantage is that it must be removed after the growing season. A report by Oklahoma State University puts the labor at about eight hours per acre to remove the plastic mulch as opposed to other types which either biodegrade or can be left in place.
Deciding which mulch suits your needs requires taking into consideration your budget, the amount of soil to be mulched and the potential need for equipment to layer the mulch, the removal of the mulch as in the case of plastic mulch and the purpose the mulch will serve. If it is being used as a walkway or recreational area then rubber may be your choice. If it is intended to enhance garden or crop production, plastic is likely a better choice.