In a world where we have spent over ten years redefining bio-plastics, Floreon's Shaun Chatterton delves into the toy industry's plastic material procurement to highlight a sustainable place for low-value toys in the future. However, it requires a considerable shift in mindset, which all toy brands will need to embrace sooner rather than later.
In recent years, we've seen toy industry giants such as Lego, Hasbro and Mattel take great strides towards broader environmental responsibility. Yet toy trends, such as fidgets and collectables, undermine the core ethos of sustainability from an ecological, social, and economic point of view. They have short lifespans and become throwaway items. Most of these toys are mass-produced Amazon fodder, yet big brands are no stranger to plastic pocket money toys because there will always be a demand for it.
According to a 2019 Rooster Money report, the average weekly pocket money spend for an 8 year old is £4.50. What do they spend it on? The number one spot still lies with magazines and books, then sweets. Lego and presents fall into 4th and 5th place, and apps and online games take up the other positions. However, we imagine that an updated 2021 report would also see fidgets in the top ten. [https://www.ft.com/content/4801084d-41bb-461b-9b92-d9479b07aee3]
What's the incentive?
Parents and guardians will see pocket money toys as a way of driving children off their electronic devices, making their incentive to buy not environmental but wellbeing related. Therefore the consumer questions of 'is it sustainable?', 'how do I recycle it?' and 'what is the environmental impact?' are not asked during the purchasing decision.
McDonald's Happy Meals are a great example. The fast-food chain stated that "from 2021, every Happy Meal in the UK will include either a soft toy, a paper-based toy or a book, as opposed to a toy made from non-sustainable hard plastic." [source: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/mcdonalds-plastic-happy-meals-environment-toy-uk-ireland-sustainable-a9406091.html]
Removing non-sustainable plastic is a fantastic step. However, consumers have complained that the alternatives have not met the needs of young children, especially the paper-based toy. From a life cycle analysis point of view, there is nothing to say that books made from paper or soft toys made from oil-based materials are any less damaging to the environment when you consider the manufacturing process, supply chain and carbon footprint.
The Sustainability Consortium states that "the manufacturing of plush toys requires plastics made from crude oil, which can impact both the environment and human health when sourced and used." [source: https://www.sustainabilityconsortium.org/wp-content/themes/enfold-child/assets/pdf/insights/toys-plush-toys-insights.pdf]
Ferrero, the makers of Kinder chocolate, are also under fire but said: "Kinder Surprise toys are durable goods, not single use plastics, and are not meant to be disposed of." [source: https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/food/1106639/kinder-surprise-egg-eu-plastic-law-ban} In the UK, they have partnered with TerraCycle to create a circular economy initiative. But could an alternative bio-plastic material be another option?
Finally, the fidget craze. Typical fidget toys use ABS plastics made from petrochemical compounds - they are oil-based. Oil is neither biodegradable nor a renewable resource. These are the materials of choice as they have an inexpensive manufacturing process and offer durability. So those with a sustainable mindset will seek out alternative materials such as metals, silicon and wood. The alternatives still need a circular economy solution at the end of life - they cannot simply go to landfill. To form that solution requires resources. [source: https://happyhands.toys/blogs/latest-updates/sustainable-fidget-toys-eco-friendly-fidgets-toys]
Yet, there is hope. We can look to the future and consider bio-plastic as a viable material with options to be durable yet degrade, act like oil-based plastic, but be safer to the environment and educate younger generations.
Eliminate or educate?
We often lose sight of the full impact of our actions. These types of toys have an intrinsic value and are an essential part of the buying experience. Rather than eliminate, change or downgrade the experience, considering new biomaterials can instead promote a better sustainable story. Consumers' education on sustainability is weak right now, so there is potential to educate young children through their toys and be a fantastic starting point for future generations.
Bio-materials undoubtedly have a considerable part to play in our future. With proven capabilities that match or better conventional materials, there is an opportunity to embark on an experiential change for our young consumers. And perhaps even more importantly, it will teach us that rather than continually moving to ban or remove as our mainstay of sustainable actions, there are other possibilities available that allow us to challenge and adapt for the better.