Waiting in a check-out line a few days ago, my children started begging for toys and trinkets hanging on the 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. But, especially around the holidays, they are caught between one world where Avengers action figures, LOL Surprise! dolls and LEGO sets are highly desirable play things, and another where they are plastic, plastic, and plastic (packaged in more plastic).
Plastics come in all shades of bad. Many of them are derived from fossil fuels, and the process causes significant greenhouse gas emissions. By some estimates, the emissions from the plastics industry could overtake those from coal by as soon as 2030. Plastics are also the scourge of the trash management system. They are notorious for ending up in waterways and other ecosystems, where they contaminate habitats, leach chemicals and become part of the 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. Year by year, though, the share of those toys in our house is being eclipsed 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. Without interventions, the annual flow of plastic into the ocean is on track to triple by 2040 to 32 million tons per year, or the same weight as 600 Titanics, according to a 2020 study funded by Pew Charitable Trusts. Some toymakers are reducing plastic, with much of the progress to date in their packaging. Mattel is shrinking the plastic windows on boxes, or eliminating them entirely, and the company is aiming for its blister containers and cartons to be at least 30% recycled plastic in 2022. Hasbro started phasing out its plastic packaging in 2020 with the goal of being plastic-free for all new products by the end of next year. LEGO has started packaging its bricks in tree-based recycled paper pouches and will complete the transition by 2025.
These efforts shouldn’t be overlooked. Packaging is the dominant source of plastic waste, accounting for nearly half of the global total, since it gets thrown out immediately. The food and beverage industry is the worst offender in this regard. However, the toy industry uses more plastic in its actual products on a revenue basis than any other sector, according to a 2014 United Nations Environment Programme report. And at some point, plastic toys themselves will enter the waste stream as well, reuniting with the plastic containers they came in.
“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.”
A non-cyclical life cycle
During a recent cleanout of my kids’ outdoor toys, I fished out a half dozen that had broken beyond use or repair. Upon inspection, only a plastic watering can (with more holes in its bottom than its spout) featured 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.”
TerraCycle makes this process profitable by charging a steep price. Depending on the quantity and type of material, consumers can pay between around $100 and $500 to send the company a box of stuff. Or they can leverage a corporate program, where companies like Hasbro and VTech, which owns LeapFrog, will subsidize the bill. 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. That responsibility falls to both toy companies that fuel consumer demand, and the consumers who effectively vote for products whenever they open their wallets. “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 says the company is happy to make this change.
“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.
Playing the long(er) game
Sadly, the current reality leaves adult consumers to make some tough decisions. They can, of course, spring only for toys that are featured on eco-friendly gift guides that pop up this time of year. Kids, however, don’t write their wish lists based on those guides. Some 90% of toys are made from plastic, according to an oft-cited 2011 estimate from a European plastics trade publication. 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. Those are critical qualities when making products at scale that have to meet 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 researcher, who studies the growing impact of teeny tiny plastic fragments in aquatic habitats. 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.
Indeed, plastic is everywhere. As we figure out how to wean ourselves off of it, companies and consumers must work to keep that plastic out of the waste stream for as long as possible, experts say. Where toys are concerned, there are a number of efforts underway to do that.
In June, LEGO announced it had developed prototype bricks from recycled PET (a type of plastic typically used for soft-drink bottles) as part of a $400 million effort to be more sustainable. 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. For the more flexible pieces like plants and trees, LEGO recently moved to a renewable bioplastic derived from sugarcane that has a 20% lower carbon footprint per piece.
Another company called Green Toys, based in San Leandro, Calif., makes products using only post-consumer HDPE (the type of plastic used in milk jugs). 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. To give the toys the best chance of being recycled again, the company uses no other materials, meaning that even the trucks, helicopters and vehicles with moving parts 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.”
A major reason companies like Green Toys and LEGO can harness post-consumer materials is because their products have uniformity: their toys are molded plastic without bells or whistles (or hair fibers or polyester fill). 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 has a program that donates used bricks to children in underprivileged communities. The process of cleaning, processing and shipping the pieces is about 80% less carbon intensive than the process to make a 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.”
Charities and consignment shops often accept toys that are in working order. There are many benefits of buying used items, including cost savings and a feel-good factor. But there are challenges, too. 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.
Eventually, though, plastic toys will start to look like the characters in Toy Story 4, straddling the line of play thing and trash thing. Dagoma, a 3D printer manufacturer in France, is aiming to give dismembered action figures a second chance through its Toy Rescue program, which helps people print spare parts to commonly broken toys if they own a 3D printer, or connect with people who have one. But beyond that, there aren’t a ton of good options for toys that are really, truly kaput.
I could tell you that my kids are getting 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.”
Will this little act of resistance suddenly change corporate behavior? No. Miraculously save the planet? No. Make Christmas more meaningful? Most definitely.
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