How Toys Can Be Climate Heroes: 5 Things to Look for in Sustainable Toys
Given the environmental and climate crises, more and more people are wanting to incorporate sustainability into their daily lives. Some have switched to using public transit in lieu of cars, others have started composting and recycling, and some have begun buying sustainable goods.
One often-forgotten category of goods that has traditionally been hard on the environment is toys. The toy industry is the world’s most plastic-intensive one. Most children’s toys are made from plastics and other materials that take hundreds of years to break down, often leaving harmful traces on our planet. If you’re looking to switch to buying more sustainable toys, here are the top five things to consider before purchasing, according to Founder & CEO of Jiminy Eco Toys, Sharon Keilthy.
1. Toy Materials. 90% of children’s toys are made from virgin (new) petroleum-based plastic. Getting petroleum from the ground does a lot of damage, and refining it into plastic releases a lot of CO2. We’d have to plant 1 billion trees to absorb the CO2 released making plastic just for toys! But there are emerging alternative materials that can replace petro-plastic in existing toy designs and manufacturing. Toy-safe recycled plastics use-up troublesome plastic waste, avoid new petroleum projects, and have a low carbon footprint. Another option are bioplastics, which are made from plants making them carbon-neutral and renewable (plants can be regrown). While many assume bioplastic is biodegradable, there are many different types of bioplastics. Bio-polyethylene (bio-PE) is a useful one for toys – made from agri-waste, durable, long-lasting, washable, and recyclable at end of life. Other eco-friendly toy materials include recycled cardboard, recycled paper, and wood.
2. Packaging. A toy’s packaging is only a few percentage points of its overall weight, making it less important to the environment than the toy itself. But as the part of the toy that gets used for the shortest time, it’s still worth minimizing its footprint. A McKinsey report on packaging sustainability suggested “low-hanging fruit” opportunities – where barriers are low, and companies can act alone, with close to zero impact on cost, functionality, or attractiveness. Such opportunities include eliminating unnecessary packaging, making packaging lighter, using already-recycled materials, using less plastic, and designing for easy recycling at home. Compostable bags have gained popularity, but they confuse people and sometimes have a high carbon footprint, so it’s preferable to stick to simpler materials like paper.
3. Travel. Another consideration to take into account is how far the toy traveled from the factory to your home. Toys are mostly (80%) manufactured in China, and shipping them across the ocean adds about 10% to their carbon footprint. Additionally, manufacturing in China typically has a higher carbon footprint, for example due to more coal use for electricity. You can decrease your carbon footprint by choosing locally-made toys. It is worth noting, however, that materials determine 90% of a product’s carbon footprint, so better a made-far-away natural or recycled material toy, than a locally-made virgin-petro-plastic one.
4. Lifetime. It can be helpful to think of a toy’s lifetime in terms of pollution-per-hour-of-play. If a toy has a low carbon footprint, but sits unused on the shelf, it has a high pollution per hour it was played with. A movement gaining traction across multiple industries is design-for-repair modular toys where if one part breaks, you can replace it. Another way to increase a toy’s lifespan is designing it for use by multiple ages, so that it retains a child’s interest as they develop. Open-ended toys, such as blocks, are great examples, because they allow for creative freedom at any age. Toy libraries avoid the “unused on shelf” scenario through toy-sharing. Ultimately, the toys with the lowest carbon impact are second-hand toys because they have the longest lifetime.
5. Offsets. A final consideration for the sustainability of toys are the carbon offsets, meaning the company invests in a project that removes carbon from the atmosphere to “cancel-out” some of their own carbon emissions. In general, it only counts as an off-set if it’s a project that would not have happened without climate-motivated investment such as tree-planting or renewable energy in the developing world. If you picture a sink overflowing with water, off-setting is like pulling-out the plug: it does help but the sink will never drain until you also turn off the faucet by reducing the CO2 emitted making the company’s products.
Taking into account these five ways toys can be more sustainable will help you decrease your environmental impact. The goal should never be perfection, rather progress, so tackling whichever of these hits the “sweet-spot” of high impact and easiest to do is the one to begin with.
This blog is inspired by Sharon Keilthy’s WiT Webinar ‘How Toys Can Be Climate Superheroes’. Watch the webinar HERE.