Most materials are recyclable, so why can’t children’s toys be sustainable?
Levesque, S., Robertson, M., & Klimas, C. (2022, March 3). A life cycle assessment of the environmental impact of children’s toys. Sustainable Production and Consumption. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352550922000550
Toy consumption is a global contributor for ongoing issues about environmental justice and climate change. Each year, 60 million Barbie dolls are sold, contributing emissions equivalent to burning 381 million gallons of gasoline. In France, 40 million toys are discarded into landfills annually, and worldwide, toys make up 6 percent of all landfill plastics. Beyond the wall of indifference, manufacturers and consumers can lower these numbers using the tools of design, material selection, and marketing.
A recent study conducted by researchers at DePaul University analyzed toys’ environmental footprint. The article provides estimates of the total ecological impact of children’s toys over their whole life cycle—from material extraction to production and transportation. After introducing various toys, the paper compares their relative contributions to specific environmental issues, including acidification, ozone depletion, eutrophication, and greenhouse gas emissions. The selected eight toys come from familiar brands, and together they cover a high volume of sales in the industry. The list is composed of 3 Lego sets, 1 Barbie doll, 1 Jenga game, 1 plush dog, 1 plush dog with battery components, and 1 Marble Frenzy game. The article suggests straightforward environmental responses in toy design, selection, and disposal.
The paper highlights toy companies’ responsibility in material selection. Use of wood exacerbates deforestation and requires substantial electricity use for material processing. Even still, wood-based toys such as Jenga are responsible for far fewer emissions than plastic toys. Given that plastic makes up 90 percent of the toy industry, improvement in plastic design could create momentum. Recently, Lego announced it would transition to a bioplastic for its blocks, acknowledging the company’s annual CO2 emissions of over one million tons. Production of computers and electronics included in some toys—such as the batteries in a plush dog—also has a serious negative impact on the environment.
Beyond material selection, production location is a crucial issue due to emissions from transportation. Currently, China hosts over 70 percent of total toy production, while the United States imports most of its toys. To better illustrate this, the article showcases two different calculations for Barbie. In one of the scenarios, the same product is imagined to be transported from China to the United States, while the other scenario calculates the transportation value from Mexico to the United States. Reduction in the miles travelled by dolls results in 7 percent less greenhouse gas emissions and 25 percent less acidification, reducing stress on the ocean’s carbon levels. Because cargo load affects transportation efficiency, toys’ mass and packaging become a determinant in environmental impact per unit.
Overall, a toy’s design needs to be proportional with its longevity. A heavy toy trashed after a short time has a great detrimental effect. On the other hand, intentional designs like the 2016 line of body-positive Barbie dolls could be sold at higher prices, lowering unit sales and increasing longevity. Beyond the benefit of more profitable business, informed design with extended longevity and eco-labels inspires more conscious purchases. With increased sensitivity to toy longevity, adult consumers can change how many toys are recycled, reused, or discarded each year. Additionally, an increase in sustainable thinking would curb the influx of barely modified, “new” designs each season.
In conclusion, from material sourcing to end disposal or recycling, there are different variables affecting overall sustainability of the toy industry. However, the article warns consumers to not only check the numbers, but to consider qualitative aspects of the design and selection process. The importance of toys in child development is undeniable, yet play is never limited by number or intended use. While excess toys are unnecessary to expand one’s imagination, keeping a smaller toy box can teach kids to be environmentally conscious in their future decisions.