Plastics are seemingly the ideal raw material for toys. They’re relatively inexpensive, easy to clean, durable, and can be molded into just about anything a child’s imagination is capable of cooking up. While wood, textiles, and metals can no doubt still be found in your average toy box, these materials have largely been supplanted by the now-ubiquitous plastic toy. Teethers, rattlers, stack toys, and other early childhood toys especially are all reliably made from plastics these days.
But the mass production made feasible by the qualities above has created its own set of problems. As will surprise no one familiar with mass consumption and its green backlash, the products we make—plastics in this case—are prone to unintended consequences. Environmental degradation, exposure to harmful chemicals, and waste plague all industries. But given the ubiquity of plastic toys in stores, classrooms, and nurseries, the toy manufacturing industry faces the twin prospects of having a uniquely massive carbon footprint and the severest consequences for a vulnerable user-base if it neglects to make a change to more sustainable plastics.
Many of the chemicals used to give plastic their flexibility have been shown to be endocrine disruptors and linked to the development of tumors, birth defects, and developmental disorders. Both the United States and the European Union have had a ban on the use of certain types of phthalates for years. Especially for young children, there is a fear that chewing on or heating the toys can exacerbate the harmful effects of exposure to chemicals like phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and heavy metals. Removing these chemicals, as well as others like PVC, should be a major thrust for toymakers looking to avoid exposing children to potentially harmful substances during the important period of early childhood development.
Luckily, toymakers are in fact exploring options for using more sustainable plastics over petroleum-based incumbents. The following are some of the most promising spins on an old material, both from a sustainability and performance perspective, that toymakers are exploring with some success:
- Bio-based plastics like PLA, PHA, and starch polymers made with renewable feedstocks instead of petroleum-based feedstocks used in traditional plastics for toys that do not deplete our finite natural resources.
- Biocomposite plastics combine natural fibers or wood flour with recycled, biodegradable, or bio-based plastics to create durable, weather-resistant toys.
- Biodegradable plastics like PLA, PHA, or compostable soft plastic elastomer can be used to make toys that can be returned to nature when their useful life has ended.
Once toymakers begin exploring options for less toxic materials, they often also find an unexpected marriage between sustainability and performance. Biocomposite materials, which utilize natural fibers such as wood pulp, flax, and starch, can bring performance characteristics such as durability, natural feel, and even buoyancy to the fore. Exploring sustainable plastics made with biocomposite materials gives toymakers a degree of flexibility and chance for creativity that’s lacking even with already versatile traditional plastic formulations.
Green Dot Bioplastic, based in Kansas, is one manufacturer of bioplastics and biocomposites working with toymakers to utilize more sustainable plastics. Recently, Green Dot Bioplastic partnered with toy manufacturers Luke’s Toy Factory. The company was looking for a biocomposite material for toy trucks and trains. They wanted something with a natural wood look and feel that could also be injection-molded to make the parts of the vehicle. They needed a material that could be colored to avoid the problem of peeling paint and also wanted a material that would be durable, even if left outside. In response, Green Dot Bioplastic provided Terratek WC, a material that meets all of these requirements. The wood–plastic composite combines wood and recycled plastic in a small pellet form, which is ideal for injection molding.
Green Dot Bioplastic is working with a number of other toy manufacturers on similar products, in an effort to produce our favorite toys from materials that are friendlier to the environment and safer for children.