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What's wrong with plastic toys?

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

There is a thriving secondhand market for them, they are not single-use and quality brands like Lego last for generations, so what is the problem?

Over 400 million toys are sold by the UK toy industry each year. 90% of them plastic and unrecyclable. Toys are the most plastic-intensive industry globally and therein lies the root of the problems.

We are not a completely plastic-free toy household; its pretty hard to be, with plastic a pervader of society and consumerism so we have some 'exceptions'. But despite allowing some plastic toys into our home, I try and avoid them as much as we can. Here's why.

1. I refuse to buy flimsy, poor quality and gimmicky toys knowing they will end up broken and discarded to the bin. 80% of plastic toys are unrecyclable, so they can only end up in landfills or incinerators adding to their environmental footprint. Research by The British Heart Foundation in 2019 found that a whopping 320 million plastic toys within the UK are thrown away every year to be incinerated and turned into climate changing C0₂ emissions.

2. The British Heart Foundation research in 2019 also found that 1 in 3 parents (28%) admit to throwing away toys that are in full working order because their children no longer play with them. This raises the issue of the rate at which plastic toys with limited life-spans and play-value are being consumed for birthdays and holidays, in gift bags at parties, inside cereal boxes and chocolate surprises and meals at fast food restaurants. Then there are seasonal toys for halloween, beach days, Easter and even Valentines day. On top of all that are the arts and crafts materials like glitter and gimmicky products like the dinosaur egg in my last blog post. These types of toys occupy a child’s attention for a short amount of time or for single events, and then get discarded to the bin.

3. I don't trust the CE marks of Chinese made goods unless from a reputable toy maker that highly controls its manufacturing process. An average of 47% of EU toy recalls are due to unsafe chemical risks including baron and asbestos. It's a poorly controlled industry due to the volume entering our shores, meaning I just don't trust the chemical credibility of many plastic toys available on the market. In 2019, 88% of the toys that failed to meet standards came from China. Of the plastic toys that were seized at the border for failed safety tests, 92% had the CE mark. A study by Toy Industries Europe (TIE) in 2020 that randomly tested toys from some of the largest selling platforms, found, for example, that bath toys purchased from E-Commerce website Wish, had 321 times the EU-permitted level of phthalates. The regulations designed to protect our children are overwhelmed.

4. Even for toys that conform to the chemical standards, there are still questionable health concerns about the use of certain chemicals needed to make plastic toys that children then absorb through their mouths and skin. Most plastics contain PVC and phthalates which make plastic more flexible and harder to break. These cause endocrine (hormone) disruption in the body and are linked to attention disorders and cancer. Many contain preservatives, which are respiratory irritants linked to asthma and allergies, and Naphthalene and its chemical cousins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are strongly suspected to cause cancer.

Babies and young children are considered particularly sensitive to chemical exposure for various reasons, including their fast metabolic rate, high surface area to body weight ratio, and fast growth of organs and tissues. Large-scale screening (2019) for chemical pollution in 13 out of 15 EU countries found all children that were tested (aged 6-11), were contaminated with phthalates, on average twice as much as their mothers. Sometimes contamination was much higher, up to 12 times more than their mothers.

5. Then many are made in factories with unethical and unsafe worker conditions. The most recent (2018) NGO investigation found that Mattel, Disney, Schleich, Hasbro and Ravenburger factory workers were being subjected to ‘serious workers rights violations’.

6. According to the Office of National Statistics (2018) the toy market in the UK alone will grow by a further 16.2% by 2022. As the most intensive plastic-use industry that requires petroleum to make them, they are a huge contributor to climate change and damage of our eco-systems that we ultimately will pass on as our legacy to our children through the toys that we give them. If we care about the planet, we need to reduce our purchase of plastic toys and start seeing them as the largest contributor of the plastic-problem.

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