Going Green with Kids: The Environmental Impacts of Toys

Sustainable children's toys  

Toys seem to make parents as happy as they make kids; nothing beats the expression on your kid’s face when playtime arrives. However, the toy industry is the most plastic-intensive manufacturing sector globally, so in our journey to “going green,” it’s important that we focus on the impacts of the toys we buy, in addition to how happy they make our kids.

What is the environmental cost of keeping children happy, and what can we do to reduce the impact toys have on the planet? This article will walk you through how toys impact the environment and will provide some examples of toys that are not only sustainable, but will have your child grinning from ear to ear.

How Toys Affect the Environment

A plastic toy kitchen is made from enough plastic to produce 400 plastic water bottles. With approximately 3 billion toys sold in the United States each year, and with 80% of toys ending up in landfills, incinerators, and even worse, the ocean, it’s clear that toys are negatively affecting the environment.

First, creating plastic is extremely environmentally-unfriendly, as plastic is made from oil, a fossil fuel. The more toys that are produced, the more carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. With so many plastic toys produced around the world, there’s no question that toy manufacturers are a lesser-known contributor to climate change.

When toys are disposed of in landfill, rather than recycled, the plastic goes to waste, and more plastic must be created from raw materials. Landfilling toys also uses up precious land area. However, landfill waste isn’t the only thing we need to worry about regarding discarded toys. Research shows a positive correlation between the increase in plastics in the sea and ocean acidification. Some plastic toys contain heavy metals that can move through the food chain when fish ingest tiny pieces of plastic. These microplastics then harm the birds and mammals that consume the fish, eventually reaching our food supply chain.

Dioxins are also a byproduct of plastic toys, and their release into the environment during incineration is particularly harmful. Studies link dioxins to serious health issues such as diabetes and heart disease, while reproductive issues and immune system damage can also result from contact with these harmful chemicals. Animals aren’t immune to the effects of dioxins, as consuming them can cause birth defects, nerve damage, and immune system deficiencies.

Making Toys Sustainable

One of the most impactful things toy manufacturers can do for sustainability is to focus on alternatives to plastic. For example, rubberwood is an option that can replace many plastic parts, and its production doesn’t burden the environment. This type of wood comes from rubber trees that are at the tail end of their use for rubber production. Rubberwood is a mainstay in furniture and flooring production and can replace many plastic toy parts.

Hemp and bamboo fibers can also come in handy when crafting sustainable toys. These plant-based options are safe alternatives to plastic as these organic materials don’t contain toxic pesticides or dioxins. They also use far less energy than plastic to produce, and often are biodegradable.

Packaging accounts for approximately half of global waste annually, and the toy industry is a top culprit in this environmental offense. Reducing wasteful packaging can make toys more sustainable as mainstream manufacturers use excessive amounts of plastic and colored cardboard to package their items. Choose toys that require minimal or no packaging and avoid supporting brands that sell their items in flashy, marketing-driven wrapping.

Furthermore, take a proactive stance in ensuring toy manufacturers follow best practices that minimize their environmental impact. Look for toy companies that undergo strict toy safety testing according to the strictest international standards. This helps ensure that your child isn’t playing with toys that contain toxic chemicals or other materials that harm both your kid and the environment.

Examples of Sustainable Toys

The most important aspect of whether a toy is sustainable or not, as well as the easiest aspect to look out for, is the material of the toy. The general rule of thumb is to avoid plastic and look for natural materials like wood, cotton, or stainless steel instead. Dolls hand-knitted using sustainable textiles, felted plush animals, and wooden wagons, figurines, and dollhouses are all examples of sustainable toys. Wooden building blocks provide eco-friendly alternatives to Legos while companies using bio-composite and biodegradable plastics can create toys that are more like the items you buy from mainstream brands, but with a lower environmental footprint.

Second-hand toys are another great way to make your toy-chest more sustainable, as buying used reduces the amount of new plastic that must be produced. Check out your local thrift store’s toy section to see what treasures it may hold. You can also find pre-owned toys online through many online marketplaces.

Spreading Joy While Being Eco-Friendly

Get together with other parents and spread the joy of sustainable toys. It’s easier for kids to embrace a beautiful hand-knitted doll when their friends aren’t walking around with the latest plasticized PVC item that’s been blasting all over mainstream television commercials.

As a parent or guardian, you don’t have to remove the joy of toys from children’s lives, or even sacrifice for “less fun” toys. There are plenty of options out there that are better than plastic. Additionally, choosing sustainable toys helps you act on the values you’d like to pass down to the next generation. Recycling old toys and choosing new ones that are sustainable can benefit the environment while teaching your child valuable lessons on caring for the Earth. Use toys as an example of making responsible, conscientious life choices, and your children will grow up to become catalysts for change.

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