He’s made his list and he’s checked it twice, but maybe Santa Claus should be considering whether plastic toys are naughty or nice, writes.
As the big day approaches and parents anticipate the look of joy on their child’s face as they rip the wrapping paper off their dream gift under a twinkling Christmas tree, maybe it’s time to consider what that toy is made of.
Plastic is the ubiquitous material of choice in toy manufacturing. Easily and cheaply mouldable, colourful, waterproof, cleanable and durable, the invention of plastics revolutionised the production of toys, beginning post-WWII with industry innovators like Lego, Fisher Price and Hasbro, the makers of the original GI Joe action figure.
Today, 90% of the staggering $90 billion worth of toys produced globally each year are made from virgin (unrecycled) plastic. And thousands of different chemical additives are used to accentuate plastic’s properties.
Phthalates, for example, are a family of chemicals used to increase the flexibility of plastic and vinyl. They are also used in cosmetics. Following calls in the US for more research into their potential health risks, several kinds of phthalates were banned from use in children’s toys in 2009.
In animal trials, several members of the phthalate family have been found to cause liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system damage in rats, particularly to the developing testes.
Although toys from reputable brands are subjected to rigorous testing and are subject to the European CE (Conformité Européene) marking scheme, each year, some toys slip through the loop and end up on the shelves in Irish shops.
The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) issued three product recalls of plastic toys with excess levels of phthalates in Ireland in 2019: two voluntary recalls by toy superstore Smyth’s Toys, of Emco Haschel’s “Mini Cupcake Surprise” doll and IMC’s “Cry Babies Nala doll,” as well as of a four-piece set of bath ducks sold by online store Wish.com.
Just under 7,000 units of these items were sold in Ireland.
Phthalates are one group of chemicals; other potential hazards include boron, which can effect bone and hormonal development and which is found in so-called “slime” toys, toxic metals like lead and arsenic, and BPA, or Bisphenol A, a known endocrine disruptor commonly found in toys, plastic dishware and baby bottles until 2008, when many major retailers started phasing it out or replacing it.
Last year, an NGO called the European Environmental Bureau scoured data provided by the European rapid alert system (Rapex) used to recall potentially harmful consumer goods and reported that there had been more chemical safety warnings for children’s toys than for any other category of goods: 290 out of a total of 563 products.
A total of 250 of these were for plastic toys, 150 of which were dolls.
Dermott Jewell, policy advisor with the Consumer’s Association of Ireland (CAI), says the difficulties of regulating chemical content of children’s toys has been “a concern for years” at the independent watchdog.
“We work with EU groups who have been trying to get the regulation changed around chemicals in all products, but especially in toys, and it’s been an uphill battle,” Dermott says.
Trying to get a standard in place that is global can take years. We’re trying to stem a tide of products that are being produced based on cost.
“For every toy out there, someone is manufacturing a bad version of it and flogging it as a good one.”
In Ireland, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) is the body responsible for reviewing products and issuing product recalls, while it’s the importer’s duty to make sure the CE mark is only being applied to tested and compliant toys. However stringent EU manufacturers might be, though, 80% of toys are made in China.
In 2018, a customs operation carried out in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia tested 104 samples of toys from China, finding over a third had illegal levels of phthalates, even though 92% of these samples carried CE marking.
“The European Commission will loudly applaud the CE mark and it’s a very relevant standard, but it could be better,” Dermott says. “The CE mark is a minimum standard. We need better than the minimum standard when it comes to the chemicals that are in plastic and the use of plastic. It’s slow to turn around global manufacturers in how they produce.”
Health concerns are one reason why parents might start questioning their reliance on plastic gifts; environment is another. Sharon Keilthy is the co-founder of jiminy.ie, a specialist Irish supplier and distributor of eco-friendly toys which are plastic-free and made in Europe.
“On top of the worries about chemicals, there are other arguments for plastic-free toys, and one is that plastic production releases loads of carbon into the atmosphere,” Sharon says. “6kg of carbon dioxide is released to produce each kilo of plastic.
“We know that about $90 billion worth of toys are made globally every year, 90% of which are virgin plastic. You would need to plant a billion trees to absorb that much carbon.”
How far toys travel to reach the shelf adds to their carbon footprint, Sharon points out. But on top of the carbon issue, there’s also disposal: “Plastic toys are usually not recyclable, and are usually made of mixed materials, especially where there are electronic components, meaning that once they break, they can’t be passed on and they end up as landfill or incinerated.”
In 1997, a container of Lego was lost off Land’s End in the UK when a container ship, the Tokio Express, was hit by a freak wave. Pieces of appropriately nautical-themed Lego wash up to this day on Cornish beaches. The incident highlighted that plastic’s very durability causes toys to persist in the environment long after the child that played with it has grown up.
Last year, Lego launched a limited range of bioplastic accessories, made from sugarcane polyethylene, and say they plan that their entire range will be made from bioplastics by 2030.
Sharon says plant-based bioplastics offer both carbon off-setting and potentially less toxic impacts than their petrochemical predecessors. But creating change needs a shift in awareness and availability of alternatives; Sharon would like to see a sustainable toy section in all major toy retailers to give parents a choice.
“There’s a lack of awareness and a whole industry there with an incentive to keep it quiet,” she says. “There’s a big group of parents who want to do the right thing, but they don’t see the right thing on the shelf. They perceive that there’s no affordable, convenient alternative.
“My objective is to try to help the toy industry move from very unsustainable, which is where we are today, to sustainable. I won’t achieve that by trying to displace giants like Fisher Price, Galt and Hasbro. I’ll never be more than 1% of the market. How the industry will change is that these big producers that dominate the market are going to change.”
At last year’s London Toy Fair, an enormous annual trade event, Sharon asked 220 exhibitors if they had any plastic-free, European toys she could stock for her online business. “215 scratched their heads and said no,” she says. “Even the fact that they had to stop and think about it gives you a sense of an industry that still has its head in the sand.”
But another vast trade expo, the Nuremberg Toy Fair, has just announced that one of three themes for its January 2020 trade fair is “Toys for the Future,” which Sharon sees as a sign of things to come.
“It shocks me that 2020 is the first year that sustainability will be a theme, but it’s still really good,” she says. “Another thing that gives me hope is that LOL dolls have just announced that they’re switching their packaging away from plastic, to paper and bioplastic. Whatever about the PVC doll inside, that’s a big move, that they’re thinking about it.”