While waiting at the checkout line, I noticed my kids beg for toys and trinkets from impulse-buy racks. Rather than replying with the usual “Not today” euphemism, I found myself saying, “Maybe for Christmas.” Alas, it’s that time of year again when I cave because I want my kids’ faces to light up when they unwrap their gifts. Their joy brings me joy—and lessens the guilt of indulging in eco-terrible plastic junk.
Parents don’t want to add to the global environmental mess that the next generation will inherit. However, parents are trapped between two worlds, one where there is Marvel action figures and another where they can surprise everyone with their LOL Surprise! Dolls and LEGO sets make highly sought-after toys, but they also come in plastic and other plastic packaging (which makes them more plastic).
There are many types of plastics. Plastics can be made from many fossil fuels and cause significant greenhouse gas emission. Some estimates suggest that the emissions from plastics may surpass those of coal as early as 2030. The scourge for trash management is plastics. Plastics are known for reaching waterways and other ecosystems where they can contaminate habitats and leach chemicals, and then become part of our food chain.
So what’s the solution?
“I don’t think there is a magic, silver bullet for the toy plastics issue,” says Katie Senft, a researcher with the U.C. Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center. “There’s a lot of toys that aren’t going to make it a decade from now,” she says. “And our kids still want them.” Senft is one of several plastics experts I spoke with who is also a parent. It’s hard to know whether to feel reassured or terrified that people with deep knowledge of both polymers and Polly Pockets are dealing with the same challenges as the rest of us.
When my children were younger, it was easier to curate their toy chest with timeless—and more environmentally friendly—wooden blocks and trains. But, year by year, the toys that were in my house are being replaced by AA battery suckers. As children become little consumers of their own, they become more aware—and more tantalized—by the hot toys displayed in stores, advertised, and chatted up at school. It’s infuriating that companies market plastic objects to kids who don’t fully comprehend the long-term implications of those objects. It’s like walking the cereal aisle where all the chocolate and marshmallow options are at kids’ eye level and the onus is on the adult to explain why we’re opting for plain oatmeal instead.
Worse, the world’s plastic problem is way more removed, insurmountable and uncontrollable than what’s for breakfast. Pew Charitable Trusts funded a 2020 study that found the annual ocean plastic flow is set to increase by 32 million tonnes per annum, which would be the equivalent of 600 Titanics. Some toymakers are making progress with plastic reduction, and most of that has been achieved in the packaging. Mattel has begun to shrink the windows of plastic boxes or eliminate them completely. The company aims for their blister containers and cartons made from at least 30% recycled plastic by 2022. Hasbro began to phase out plastic packaging in 2020, with the aim of becoming plastic-free by next year. LEGO is now packaging all bricks using tree-based and recycled paper bags. This transition will continue until 2025.
These efforts shouldn’t be overlooked. The main source of plastic waste worldwide is packaging. This accounts for almost half the total. Food and drink industry are the biggest culprits in this respect. According to the 2014 United Nations Environment Programme report, however, toys use more plastic than other sectors in their actual revenue. The plastic toys that are used in toy manufacturing will end up in the landfill, where they’ll be reunited with their containers.
“If we can build a circular economy of our packaging, that seems really transformative,” says Dana Gulley, a business consultant who focuses on sustainability and climate justice. “But I’m going to argue they’re still incremental changes and they’re not going to…move us from an extractive to a regenerative economy, which is what we need.”
Uncyclical life cycles
During a recent cleanout of my kids’ outdoor toys, I fished out a half dozen that had broken beyond use or repair. Only a watering can made of plastic, with more holes than the spout in its bottom, had a recycling symbol. I’d like to think that it became a pipe or a park bench or another watering can for another child to abuse to their heart’s content, unlike the broken pieces of trucks, backhoes, and water wheels that I reluctantly consigned to a landfill for the next 400 years.
Municipal waste services don’t recycle toys because it is cost prohibitive to break down all the different pieces and process them individually. “Imagine that you’re cooking something, you’re taking all these materials and you’re only thinking about what’s going to make the best meal,” says Tom Szaky, the CEO and founder of TerraCycle, a company that recycles objects that can’t go in a curbside bin. “Recycling is, you’ve got to take that meal apart into its components, and then once they’re in their components, then you can melt them and reprocess them back into a usable form.”
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TerraCycle is able to turn this business around by charging high prices. Consumers can send a company box of goods for anywhere from $100 to $500, depending on how much and what kind of material they are sending. They can also leverage corporate programs, in which companies such as VTech (which owns LeapFrog) will subsidise the cost. But even these efforts aren’t going to fix the plastic crisis, Szaky says, as the focus needs to be on lessening our reliance on plastic in the first place. This responsibility lies with both the toy companies responsible for driving consumer demand as well as consumers, who vote every time they open their pockets. “Whatever we buy, two more will appear tomorrow—one to replace the one we bought and one to signify the trend. And everything we didn’t buy, one less will appear,” he says. “What would you like the shelf to look like tomorrow?”
On the face of it, that idea seems simple: If consumers support only the companies that are environmental superstars, we’ll get to where we want to be much faster. But it’s not easy to evaluate a company’s true waste stream, carbon emissions and social impact—particularly large companies with global supply chains—nor distinguish real environmental progress from “greenwashing,” or overselling of sustainability efforts.
Even TerraCycle’s corporate partnerships programs have come under scrutiny, as critics say the recycling process isn’t transparent and consumers often have long waits or other challenges to participate, resulting in very small amounts of material that actually get accepted. A lawsuit against Terracycle and a number of its large corporate partners arose from these concerns, and, as part of a November settlement, qualifying products must not be labeled as “100% recyclable” and must include disclaimers such as “limited availability” when that is the case. Szaky stated that Terracycle is open to making this adjustment.
“It is becoming increasingly a license-to-operate to make sure that you are talking about [environmental issues] in some way,” says Gulley. “While that seems really positive, if a company is only inadvertently treating that like checkboxes, then the change won’t be enough. And I think that’s what’s at risk right now.” For companies to really make a difference, Gulley argues, corporations need to fully evaluate how their business models rely on peoples’ sacrifices, and they need to commit to repairing that harm.
Adult consumers are faced with difficult choices in today’s reality. Adults can only purchase toys featured in eco-friendly gift guide that appear at this time of the year. Kids, however, don’t write their wish lists based on those guides. According to a 2011 estimation from an European trade magazine, 90% of toys made of plastic are available. It’s a dated number and hard to corroborate, but having spent a decent amount of time perusing toy departments and hopscotching landmines scattered around my house, it seems plausible.
Manufacturers gravitate to plastic because it’s cheap, versatile and dependable. These qualities are crucial when producing products on a large scale and meeting safety standards. “One of the great things about plastic is it’s durable, but once it ends up in the environment we don’t want it to be so durable,” says Senft, the U.C. Davis is a researcher who examines the impact of tiny pieces of plastic on aquatic ecosystems. These so-called microplastics can result from running synthetic textiles like nylon and polyester through the laundry, as well as from plastic trash that has broken apart over time into smaller and smaller bits that don’t decompose.
It is all around. Experts agree that we need to find a way to stop using plastic. Companies and customers must also work together to make sure it doesn’t end up in our landfills. There are many efforts being made to eliminate plastic waste from toys.
LEGO, part of a $400m sustainability effort announced prototype bricks it made out of PET recycled plastic. It took years and hundreds of tries to produce the gray bricks—LEGO is still working out how to color them—that are durable, compatible with legacy pieces and hurt just as much underfoot. LEGO is now using a bioplastic from sugarcane to make more flexible pieces, such as trees and plants. This has a 20 percent lower carbon footprint per unit.
Green Toys (based in San Leandro), Calif. makes plastic products from only post-consumer HDPE. This is the type of plastic that’s used in milk bottles. The process isn’t easy. The recycled plastic has to be collected, sorted, processed and tested to be sure it’s not contaminated with banned materials, making it a more expensive material than virgin plastic. In order to give toys the best chance at being recycled, they use no other materials. That means even trucks, helicopters, or vehicles that have moving parts, can work without screws. “We face limitations that others don’t have, like we don’t do paint or external coatings,” says Green Toys president Charlie Friend. “We don’t do electronics, or any sort of additives of any kind. There are a lot of things that the design team would love to do but are not sustainable.”
Green Toys and LEGO are able to harness post-consumer resources because of their uniformity. Their toys are plastic molded without any bells or sounds (or hair fibres or polyester filled). There’s an advantage to that on the back end, too, as items made of homogenous plastic have the best chance of getting recycled additional times.
But recycling shouldn’t be the go-to solution, argues Tim Brooks, LEGO’s vice president of environmental sustainability—the goal should be a product durable enough to last generations. LEGO offers a brick donation program where used bricks are donated to underprivileged children. It takes about 80% less energy to clean, process and ship the used bricks than it does to create a brand new brick. “We only need to recycle if it’s had millions of hours of play,” says Brooks. “The ultimate goal is we want the brick to be reused as long as possible and then have brick-to-brick recycling. But don’t miss the step of reuse.”
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Consignment shops and charities often take toys in their original working condition. It is possible to save on costs and still feel great about purchasing used toys. However, there can be some challenges. It may mean forgoing the most desired toys of each season that just debuted and haven’t yet made it to the second-hand market (think: the Baby Yoda craze). And unlike many household objects, used toys come with certain risks, including ickiness—well-loved toys can be super gross—and potential safety issues. The responsibility is on the buyer to make sure the toy hasn’t been recalled and doesn’t contain unsafe chemicals.
Plastic toys eventually will look just like the cartoon characters. Toy Story 4This is a crossroads between trash and play. Dagoma 3D printing company in France is trying to help dismembered action figurines get a second chance. The Toy Rescue program helps anyone print replacement parts or to connect with others who own 3D printers. But beyond that, there aren’t a ton of good options for toys that are really, truly kaput.
You could bet I told you my children will have a plastic-free Christmas. But I’d be lying. The top toys on their wish lists are plastic, and, whether used condition or new, I’m going to buy them. However, in this season of overindulgence, I’m adopting other ways to stem the plastic flow, like resisting the cheap plastic stocking stuffers that my kids ask for on the checkout line.
Both high-quality toys and cheaply made ones “are going to end up in the environment potentially, and they’re both going to last for a long time,” says Senft. “So I say you might as well purchase the piece of plastic that’s actually going to have a longer life cycle with its intended use, versus something from a dollar store that’s going to break after 10 seconds.”
This little resistance will change company behavior. No. No. No. Do you want Christmas to be more meaningful? Most definitely.