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bio!TOY: The Sustainable Plastic Toys Conference: A Report by WiT Sustainability Learning Community


bio!TOY conference happens every 2 years, and this year focused on both bio-based and recycled plastics (and how to choose between them)! WiT Sustainability Learning Community co-founder Sharon Keilthy was one of the organizers and has some buzzwords and take-home ideas to share from the event.


The buzzwords and take-home themes

Why: it’s personal

I was encouraged by speakers referring to a fossil-fuel-free future as, “it will be.” Every speaker showed an eagerness to see toys become sustainable, and their motivation is personal: their children.


“My daughter asked me, “Daddy, why are you making toys from petroleum? Our planet is in crisis!” And I didn’t have a good answer. She was right. So I went into the office and told my team, “We need to change.” - Steven van Bommel, founder of BiOBUDDi


“I wanted my children to grow up in a thriving world. So I had two choices: raise them without toys, or make toys sustainable.” - Sonia Sánchez, Sustainable Toys Action Consulting and fellow WiT Sustainability Learning Community committee member


They are right: the toy industry is the world’s most plastic-intensive industry, with 90% of products using virgin petro-plastic. The industry has a carbon footprint so big we’d have to plant 1 billion trees to absorb it!




Defining ‘sustainable toys’

"Sustainability means the reduction of emissions – all the rest is blah-blah, it's nothing." - Filippo Gallizia, GeoMag World.


The vast majority of presenters agreed with him and focused on the importance of making toys carbon-neutral. Yet, toy recyclability appeared in many questions, and even one toy maker’s sustainability strategy. But as many said, it’s a red herring — potentially even greenwashing.


For my eco toy store Jiminy, our strict standards focus on carbon footprint (a real, immediate benefit to the world), not on recyclability in today’s recycling systems (a theoretical benefit customers won’t realize). That’s because a quality toy will be played with for 25 years before it’s too worn or broken for the next child. And in 25 years (nearly 2050), recycling technology will be completely different (better).


Selling a benefit that won’t be realized is greenwashing, say the FTC Green Guides, (the EU equivalent of which is due for approval this year). And the waste hierarchy tells us, it’s usually better to recycle than biodegrade. It takes far less electricity/water/chemicals to recycle existing paper into a new sheet, than to biodegrade it, grow a new tree, and make paper.

So although our society currently associates “biodegradable” with “sustainable,” actually we’d only want a toy to be biodegradable if it frequently ends-up in nature — like Nerf darts!



Bio-based vs recycled

“There's an ecological limit to the quantities of bio-based plastics, so recycled plastics will be key.” - Alexander Kronimus, Plastics Europe.


The importance of recycled plastic was a strong theme at bio!TOY. But any recycling risks contamination. Industrial waste is safer — we know better what’s in it. Post-consumer waste is riskier (imagine a mobile phone full of heavy metals being mixed-in). Separating toy-safe plastics (by resin and colour) from post-consumer waste is expensive — meaning they are not widely available in quantities, nor at prices, needed, especially by bigger toy manufacturers.


The main source of toy-safe recycled plastics is food containers, especially PET drinks bottles, but there is controversy about breaking the bottle-to-bottle closed recycling loop to divert material into toys.


Bio-plastic, (renewable) virgin material, is more readily toy-suitable, but it will be a small percentage of the “fossil-free end-state” for plastics. The bio!TOY policy debate with Toy Industries of Europe, Plastics Europe, the European Commission, and Hasbro, considered how policy could make toy-suitable recycled plastic more available, by encouraging growth of supply.


Mass balance

Mass balance means putting a mixture of plants (biomass), and/or waste (trash), into the same processing equipment together with fossil feedstock — tracking the percent of each going in — and allocating that same percent to the outputs.


Floris Buijzen of Borealis used a helpful analogy: renewable electricity flows through the same electricity distribution grid as fossil electricity — we just attribute the renewable to the customers who buy it.


“Mass balance is probably the most complex technology to communicate, but in my point of view, it is the quickest solution to save CO2 emissions.” - Christian Ruthard, Product Manager at INEOS Styrolution



Safety

It felt like half the speakers said something like, “we want to be sustainable but we can’t compromise child safety.” The main concern is recycled plastics contamination (see above).


But I think Sonia Sánchez made the entire room stop breathing with this powerful counterpoint: "Many seem to say 'sustainability is important but don't push me too much because we cannot compromise on safety.' I think we need to reframe this mindset – sustainability is safety in the long term…The truth is that for some children in countries affected by climate change, it is not even a long-term consideration of safety – it is a matter that affects them today".


Cost

Some toy makers reported no increase in cost switching to recycled materials. GeoMag, for example, attributed this to having chosen a widely-available recycled polymer.


But most reported higher costs — such as Fischertechnik who saw 40% higher final costs switching one playset to bio-PA6.


Ulrich Betzold reported that after extensive e-commerce testing, they learned customers will pay up to 10% more (full retail price) for sustainability. By my calculations, if materials are only 10% of a toy maker’s costs, they can pass on up to two times higher material costs before retail price increases by 10%.


Overall take-home

I left bio!TOY feeling very encouraged that so many people with so much influence on our industry are so committed to sustainability. But I was also conscious that as an industry that exists for children, we should be leading among other industries on sustainability.We have much work to do to get from here to there.



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