Toys are awash in fossil plastics but it doesn’t have to be that way. Here is how we could decarbonise play.
Like most of the consumer landscape, the $90.7 billion children’s toy industry is embedded in the fossil economy. As elsewhere, the main hurdle to decarbonising it is plastic.
LEGO is representative of the toy industry’s plastic problem, using 90, 000 tonnes of it in products each year. Its total 2020 carbon emissions were 1, 777, 123 tonnes, 98% of which came from scope 3 emissions, those associated with extracting and processing materials.
The impacts of plastic toys
Studies have routinely found that plastic parts contribute the most to a toy’s overall carbon footprint among all other components.
One identified the Lego Star Wars Set as the highest greenhouse gas emitter out of a sample of eight popular toy products. Its carbon footprint owed to the large amount of Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) it contained.
Apart from contributing carbon emissions and helping enrich fossil fuel companies, the toy industry also damages ecosystems. It is expected to generate more than one million tons of plastic waste annually by 2023 and additives like plasticisers and flame retardants as well as microplastics are more likely to leach into the environment than be safely processed.
The growing market in digital smart toys raise the stakes of sustainable children’s products. Their batteries rely on mining while their metallic components will inevitably add to the growing stock of global e-waste.
LEGO’s sustainability initiatives
The first step to reducing the environmental impacts of children’s toys will be for large producers to simply stop using virgin petrochemicals, opting for either recycled material or alternative materials.
Lego has taken some steps towards fossil-free toy production. In June 2021 it announced plans to start using recycled materials from plastic bottles for products, demonstrating a prototype brick from the process. They are now working on how to add colours and moulding properties to the recycled bricks in ways that meet health standards for their products.
Increasing the biobased content of their toy bricks is another part of Lego’s sustainability strategy. It is now using bio-PE made from Brazilian sugarcane as part of their range.
Lego strengthened its commitment to using more bio-based plastics in April 2023 when it signed an agreement to buy e-methanol, a lower carbon alternative to petrochemical methanol, from a Danish plant now under construction. The plant will begin producing 32, 000 tonnes of e-methanol each year from 2024.
While these steps are welcome, they are still a drop in the ocean as far as volumes are concerned. Lego products use at least 12 types of plastics to achieve the different colours and properties of the building blocks. Renewable plastics have not yet diversified and scaled to the extent that large suppliers can simply swap out their petrochemical use entirely. This indicates how elimination and re-use are essential to reducing the environmental impacts of the industry.
According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation research, most plastic items on the market today simply do not need to be made from plastic at all. The best way to reduce their environmental burden is to re-use existing products or eliminate their use in certain applications entirely.
The re-use and elimination approaches are especially appropriate for toys, of which 80% end up in landfill, incinerators, or the ocean. In this situation, even products made from sustainable materials would become a source of waste and ecological damage.
Circular initiatives are badly needed in the toy industry and Lego has again made some progress on this front. Its Replay pilot initiative encourages toy owners to donate used bricks to children’s charities in the US. Toy-Cycle is a Californian company dedicated to collecting used toys and sorts them for resale. Rejoué in France has a similar model and has so far prevented 300 tonnes of toys from entering landfill.
For toys to enter the circular economy, however, they must be durable and repairable to begin with. Dagoma is a 3D printing company that runs Toy Rescue, which offers a range of spare parts for broken toys.
Craft and durability is missing from the market
Although setting up a sharing economy in toys is a welcome strategy, other approaches are needed too. This is because circulating an ever-growing pool of newly minted plastic will not dampen down the ramp-up of energy and resource use we see in the toy industry today.
The toy industry’s environmental impacts do not just derive from the materials it uses but the rate at which it produces. We have a massive oversupply in poor quality toys destined to be thrown out and replaced quickly. In this respect, the children’s market is no different to much of the adult market. The incentive in both is to churn out products that encourage more buying.
Circularity would improve the situation but any sustainability gains from this will be quickly be wiped out if we do not slow the rate at which cheap new products are entering the market.
Well-crafted goods from sustainably grown wood is a promising route for durable toys without virgin plastics. The idea of wooden toys might seem dated until you see what companies like Grimm Spiel Und Holz Design are achieving. Some of what they make look like geometric sculptures. On closer inspection, they break down into simple, colourful elements that stimulate imaginative play while retaining the eye-catching appeal of plastic products.
Then there are retailers like Odin Park, which is combatting the disposable model by curating brands making non-battery powered toys “designed to last through generations”.
Odin Park’s vast range of ethically sourced range contains games, music boxes, and replicas of natural curiosities mostly made from wood and felt. While cheaper items go for between £20-£30, many are meant to be handed down as heirlooms. More precious creations cost hundreds.
Stimulating the green toy sector
Legislation is a key lever in affecting large, structural shifts in the toy industry of the kind that would benefit sustainable companies. We have seen how laws can achieve changes at larger scales, such as Extended Producer Responsibility policies in the EU and the Basel Convention of 2019 that targeted hazardous waste exports including plastics.
Already, some companies have taken voluntary action on cutting plastic toys. UK supermarket chain Waitrose has banned children’s magazines that come with them. However, government regulations banning the manufacture and sale of disposable plastic toys would be the quickest way to both incentivise sustainable practices among existing businesses and stimulate demand for smaller green enterprises.
Consumers have an obvious role to play with their spending choices but industry can also act. While there are many toy industry associations around the world, none are dedicated to representing the interests of sustainable manufacturers.
National and international bodies that bring together circular and bio-based toys producers could help the push towards legislation that phases out plastics and stimulates sustainable business models in the industry.
Thinking beyond oil
Environmental damage from the fossil economy is already destroying lives but it is today’s children who will bear the worst of the impacts. This is why it is particularly disturbing to realise that the products that help young people develop are also generating profits for the petrochemical industry.
There is hope for improvement in the industry. Even in the still relatively secure developed world, parents are increasingly thinking about how a more drought-prone, food insecure planet will affect their children. 71% of US parents surveyed by an ABC News-Ipsos poll in 2022 said they are concerned about how climate change will impact their children. A similar portion said the same in a 2021 British survey.
Their concerns are not misplaced. 2023 has already broken global sea surface temperature records dating back to the 80s – a trend so frightening that some scientists have refused to speak on record about the implications. Record-breaking warming will likely intensify later this year with the start of El Nino, a weather phenomenon that adds roughly 0.2 degrees to global temperatures.
As the impacts of climate change percolate into every aspect of our lives, parents are examining how consumption choices they make on behalf of their children are shaping the planet they will inherit.
Using virgin fossil resources to feed a vast toy industry is not the kind of indulgence we can afford on a warming planet. However, the material still appeals to children and marketing departments alike for its unique physical properties.
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), a popular polymer in the toy industry, can take on bold, durable colours and comes in a high gloss shine. It is also easy to shape. Of more interest to the toy companies than their young audiences, it is also incredibly cheap to work with.
Luckily, reducing plastics in toys should be much easier than doing the same in certain food and industry applications where health and safety considerations limit the possible materials that can be used.
Since fossil plastic is far from the only material that can offer the joy of play, a fossil-free toy industry is easily within reach. Parents and producers must think more imaginatively about the ways they can educate and entertain without reaching for petrochemical products.