The environmental Nightmare before Christmas

Toys are a Christmas stocking staple, but what are their environmental impacts? Samantha Lyster investigates

The seven days before Christmas are the busiest in the toy market calendar. Last year, 38 toys on average were bought for each child in the UK, with 11 of these being Christmas gifts and stocking fillers, according to the British Toy and Hobby Association and market research company The NPD Group.

But when carers and present givers scan children’s Christmas lists this year the environmental impact of the items featuring on them are likely to be furthest from their thoughts.

Scale of the market

The toy industry is a major consumer of plastic and packaging. There is plenty of data on the energy and resources used to make a plastic bottle, and figures abound for how many plastic bags wash into the ocean, but there are few equivalent statistics for toys.

The British Toy and Hobby Association claims the UK toy market is the largest in Europe, worth £3.2bn a year. It grew by 5.9% in 2015, when 58,000 products were launched. Action figures and building sets, mostly made of plastic, were popular, with Lego Minifigures the best-selling toy in the UK last year.

Yet unwanted and discarded toys, particularly those made of plastic, are not on the radar of many organisations concerned with recycling and plastic usage. The remit of waste and resource body Wrap, for example, does not cover toys and, according to information site recycling.co.uk, which lists what can and cannot be recycled around the UK, the country has no dedicated local authority facilities for toy recycling.

Piles of second-hand toys in charity shops and donations to playgroups account for some unwanted items. Inevitably though, many end up in landfill or, like other plastic, in the ocean. During the 2015 global coastal clean-up organised by charity Ocean Conservancy, among the ‘weird’ items recovered was a plastic toy drum kit and a toy elephant. Unfortunately, the charity did not have figures for how much plastic in the form of toys was recovered.

Carole Mars, senior researcher at The Sustainability Consortium, a global organisation focused on improving the sustainability of consumer products, says without such attention it is difficult to keep track of where the toys end up once they are discarded. ‘How much makes it to landfill or ocean is a very difficult number to determine,’ she says. ‘I’ve found the toy industry does not widely consider end-of-life of its products.’

Mars believes this is partly because toy companies rightly prioritise product safety: ‘I don’t think it is so much of a blind spot with respect to plastics in toys, more the way issues related to toys are prioritised. With toys, the overwhelming concern is child safety, and what chemicals are included in the plastics themselves.

‘Not many people think about other aspects of toy production and disposal impact. Because of this, there is very little about the sustainability of toy supply chains as we have with other types of products. Packaging of toys has seen some improvements, as companies move away from PVC films and use recyclable plastics and recycled content in paperboard packaging.

‘Unfortunately, the nature of the industry is that presentation on the shelf is extremely important so size of packaging is not expected to decrease, and the foil and glitter and other surface treatments can contaminate waste streams, and are not really considered recyclable at this point.’

Leading lights

Within the toy industry there are examples of companies that are aware of the waste and resource issues, Lego being one of the leading players in attempting to make its business more sustainable. Spokesperson Roar Rude Trangbæk says Lego’s approach is ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’. ‘We aspire to achieve zero waste,’ he says. ‘As a consequence we work to reduce our material use, such as the use of cardboard, and reuse materials where we can. We recycle items like paper, cardboard, wood and metal.’

 Trangbæk says Lego has experienced significant growth in demand for its products over the past ten years: ‘The quantity of Lego bricks we produce has increased, and with that our consumption of raw materials. This highlights the necessity for us to keep improving our management of waste, and we will continue to work hard to meet our target of recycling 90% of it.’

He says the company is keen for children to play with bricks for as long as possible. ‘Lego bricks are very durable and you can play with them for years. All bricks produced since 1958 fit together, and we always do our best to ensure that all of them stay in play. As such, we believe that a product this durable should not be thrown away.’

Wasted material

Trangbæk describes waste management as one element of a broader responsibility. ‘As a company, Lego’s overall ambition is to leave a positive impact on the planet,’ he says. ‘Our biggest impact in that respect naturally comes through the Lego play experiences we believe inspire and help children to develop. But naturally the toys and games children play with have an environmental impact. The initiatives we are working on in the environmental sustainability area should ensure that we minimise our environmental impact from manufacturing Lego bricks.’

To this end, the Danish company has launched a sustainable materials centre. It researches sustainable substitutes for the raw materials used in making Lego products, including packaging. The aim is to have all such materials sustainable by 2030.

It would seem a given that an industry striving for sustainability should look to using recycled plastic when it can, but there are problems associated with this. A report into recycling plastic by the University of Cambridge’s ImpEE project to improve engineering education highlighted various challenges, including contamination from immovable labels or a cross-mix of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) with PET (polyethylene terephthalate).

Mars says these issues prevent the use of recycled material in some toys: ‘In many cases, especially with plush toys and dolls, there are product safety regulations that require virgin materials in parts that children would come into contact with. She also notes that it is difficult for manufacturers to tune production so that items with recycled content go to one market, and the same ones without recycled content go to another.’

Ethical concerns

There are, however, independent toy producers that have made a unique selling point out of using recycled and sustainable materials. Dr Zigs Extraordinary Bubbles is the brainchild of conservationist Paola Dyboski-Bryant.

She started the business from her kitchen table in Bangor, north Wales, producing high-quality soap bubble mixture sold through its online store. The bottles are made in the UK from recycled plastic, the wands from sustainable wood. Even the string around the wands is sustainably sourced. The environmental credentials and the quality of the mixture are why people are willing to pay £15 upwards for the kits.

‘When you look at the bubble mixture market almost 99% of it comes in from China,’ Dyboski-Bryant says. ‘We wanted to offer an alternative and launch a business that should be as sustainable as it could and as ethical as we can [make it]. I have a background in marine conservation, and I’m passionate about reducing resource use.

‘But the toy industry is a tough sector. I’ve talked to distributors and the margins that they want are absurd. We’re a handmade product, we offer [employees] a living wage, so we have high costs. But because it’s a quality product we can charge more. However, it’s tough.’

The business looks to incorporate green solutions wherever it can. It uses rainwater for the bubble mixture, and is developing a heat exchange system for its production facilities.

The children’s playground equipment company, Marmax, is another brand that uses 100% UK recycled plastic. Marketing executive Kate Stewart says: ‘The only material we use in our products that isn’t recycled is for the screws and bolts that hold the products together.’  

But finding the correct, good quality, raw material to make the range of plastic equipment can be difficult.

Availability is a major challenge for firms that want to use recycled material. The recent low cost of oil has made ‘virgin’ plastic less expensive, leading to lower prices for recycled material. Wrap recently reported that prices for plastic packaging recovery notes had fallen to £35 a tonne since peaking at £67.50 in November 2015. This drop has led to some manufacturers ceasing production of recycled plastics.

This may prove problematic for future supplies, but it has not deterred British retailer Mothercare from exploring options for its own line of toys. ‘We are at the early stages of looking into opportunities for recycled plastics, and some suppliers do use plastic regrind, but we must always ensure these products meet toy safety standards as a priority,’ says a spokesperson. ‘In terms of sustainable production, our supplier code of practice includes reducing environmental impacts as part of our standard requirements. This is also something we are working on with our suppliers in China.’

Mothercare has developed an environmental scorecard with a Chinese NGO to assess a factory’s performance on key metrics, and is now rolling this out to major suppliers. ‘We plan to develop some case studies to share with all suppliers and eventually for all factories to have their own scorecard and key performance indicators,’ the spokesperson says.

Resource management

Reducing resources during production is an area toy giant Hasbro has been working on since 2002. It recently announced plans to halve the waste it sends to landfill by 2020 and reduce energy consumption, GHG emissions and water use by 25%, 20% and 15% respectively. The company, whose product range includes Transformers and My Little Pony and board games Monopoly and Cluedo, says it reduced non-hazardous waste by 40%, energy consumption by 19%, GHG emissions by 32% and water consumption by 31% between 2008 and 2012.

Hasbro is also working on reducing its product-to-packaging ration. It has already eliminated PVC from its packaging and, in 2010, replaced all wire ties with ones made from paper rattan or bamboo mix to reduce environmental impacts.

This is good progress, but packaging continues to be a bugbear for the industry. Mars says packaging is what first appeals to parents and children when browsing shelves. Jessica Green, co founder of toy-sharing service the Toy Box Club, feels that some packaging is ‘Machiavellian’ in design: ‘We spend hours untwisting wires, attempting to cut thick, sharp plastic and unstitching to try to extract the toy before even beginning to figure out how to assemble it or change the batteries.’

Green launched the Toy Box Club with business partner Sheela Berry because, as carers, they were tired of being surrounded by piles of unwanted toys. Green says the subscription service lets a child have the fun of ‘new’ toys without the waste and expense associated with buying from stores: ‘Our subscribers tend to be families who live in limited space in London, who are ethically minded but also aware of not wanting their homes swallowed up by plastic.’

She is staggered that the toy industry seems to have so little interest in sustainability and recycling, and that the sector appears to be unregulated in this area. ‘We provide all toys fully assembled, with batteries and instructions – and no individual packaging,’ she says. ‘Our boxes are fully recyclable, and we donate “tired but intact” toys to charity, and recycle the broken ones.’

Promotional products

The toys that are given to charity shops or schemes such as the Toy Box Club may at least be granted longer lives before they are discarded. Many of these are toys that have ‘value’, as opposed to the pocket money products that go into the bin after five minutes of play.

As well as being one of the largest fast-food chains in the world, McDonald’s is also the biggest distributor of toys as a result of the plastic promotional ones given out with Happy Meals. According to the New York Times, these amount to 1.5 billion worldwide each year. McDonald’s is phasing out the paper books and games it used to include, which reduced at least some plastic output. It is an example of where design and forward-thinking to the end of life of a toy can make a huge difference.

There are projects under way that aim to change society’s perception of plastic, and these include the use of design as a way to reduce consumption in daily life. The WASTED sustainability organisation in Amsterdam hosts workshops where people can process used plastic into building blocks. And the Send A Cow charity, which supports training in Africa, has an education section on how to upcycle plastic items into toys.

So this Christmas, when pester power is at its strongest, perhaps those buying toys could cite sustainability as an excuse to reduce the number of items on children’s wish lists or at least find more environmentally friendly ones to fill stocking space.

Author: 

Samantha Lyster is a freelance writer; @SamanthaLyster.

Back to Top