Day 6

'Wasted': Greening the plastics-heavy toy industry

Our new series, 'Wasted', takes a closer look at trash, disposability and built in obsolescence. First up, Green Toys is trying to reduce the amount of plastic in landfills by using recycled milk jugs to make its toys.
Plastic toys account for 90 per cent of the toy market, but most plastic toys are not recyclable in North America. (iStock/Getty Images)

Plastic is a huge part of the toy industry. Ninety per cent of toys are made from some form of plastic and most of them aren't recyclable.

One of the hottest toys of the Christmas season was something called the LOL Surprise Ball, a plastic ball that contains plastic toys, and sometimes more plastic balls, and a lot of plastic wrapping too.

This week on Day 6, we kick off a new series called "Wasted," and it's all about trash — how we generate it, what happens to it, and how we can generally be better at dealing with garbage.

Fresh from Santa's visit, we're starting off with a look at toys.

So what do you do with your old toys? Eventually it turns into waste.- Miriam Diamond, Department of Earth Sciences, U of T

Toys are a $22 billion industry, which means a lot of plastic. Most plastic toys are designed to be made as inexpensively as possible, and often end up in the trash at the end of their life cycle.

Miriam Diamond is a professor with the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto. She says that while plastic makes toys more affordable, it also makes them more disposable.

"You now have the toy of the month. You switch it out," she says. "So what do you do with your old toys? Eventually it turns into waste."

But some toy companies are taking a closer look at the materials they use, taking a greener approach to manufacturing their products.
The 'Meal Maker' play set from Green Toys, made of 100 per cent recycled plastic. (Green Toys)


Recycled materials

Green Toys, a California-based company that's been in operation for a decade, says its products are 100 per cent recycled, made from milk jugs and other types of recycled plastic.

We'd love if more companies were experimenting with using recycled materials instead of virgin plastic.- Green Toys' marketing and sales director Erin Passmore

"Number 2 plastics, if you are into plastics, this material is super safe," says Cameron Passmore, Green Toys' director of marketing and sales operations.

"It's — unfortunately, in some respects — readily available because of the plastic use right now in North America, and we make it into durable, safe children's products that span from trucks to tea sets to bath toys to sand buckets."

So if smaller firms like Green Toys can commit to creating their products from recyclable plastics, why can't industry giants do the same?

"That's a great question," Passmore says. "We'd love if more companies were doing it and were experimenting with using recycled materials instead of virgin plastic, but there's research that needs to go into it, and it's not the traditional material, so it just may not be a point of focus for some companies."

The car carrier is one of Green Toys' top-selling toys. (Green Toys)

When the founders of Green Toys began looking into ways to manufacture more sustainably, there weren't many examples within the industry to look to for inspiration.

"Not in durable goods that they found, at least," Passmore says. "There were definitely people doing it in plush, using organic cotton and fair trade and things like that. But for the most part, 10 years ago, there wasn't as much of a focus on reusing materials as there is now. And so they looked at everything — bioplastics and corn plastics — and landed on this recycled HDPE [high-density polyethylene]."

Aside from the green cred of creating products from already recycled material — Green Toys has used more than 52.6 million milk jugs in its toys to date, taking that much plastic away from landfill — the company also aims to ensure its products are built to last.

"The most eco-friendly toy is the one it doesn't end up getting thrown away ever, and that stays in use," Passmore notes.


Tons of plastic and other waste lines areas along the Thames Estuary shoreline, an important feeding ground for wading birds and other marine wildlife. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Attempting innovation

Green Toys isn't about to start competing with the marketing power of toy juggernauts like Fisher-Price and Hasbro, but their eco-friendly approach is winning over parents concerned about the provenance and sustainability of what they're bringing into the house for their kids.

Parents are starting to look at toys the way they do with food — they want to know what's in them [and] where they come from.- Erin Passmore

"We're marketing to parents more or less. We're not selling our products to a 3-year-old, we're selling it to their parents, to their grandparents, to the gift-givers that are making these purchase decisions," Passmore says.

"Parents are starting to look at toys the way they do with food — they want to know what's in them, they want to know where they come from — and in terms of transparency and quality of materials and transparency of the supply chain, we feel we can compete with anyone."

While Green Toys' approach is partly in direct opposition to the sea of rigid plastics being churned out by the toy industry, the company doesn't point fingers at its competitors for the environmental consequences of their products.

"We just focus on ourselves," Passmore explains. "We feel really strongly about taking the environmental stance with what we're doing and making sure that while we're still making great products for kids, we're also making great products for the environment."

More toy manufacturers will need to take up greener practices before the industry's environmental impact truly begins to change, Passmore says.

"Hopefully that sector of companies continues to grow as more and more people join this movement and pick a cause, whether its plastics or plush materials, or arts and crafts materials, or whatever it is within the toy industry," she says. 

"We just feel like we're going to make good products for kids that are safe, that are developmentally appropriate, that are fun, and we'll compete with whoever else is out there making those same types of products." 


Some toy companies are trying to go greener so their items won't end up in the landfill. (iStock/Getty Images)

'Ready for the next generation'

Anyone who's seen Toy Story 3 knows that all toys eventually reach the end of their lives. In the real world, many plastic toys end up in landfill — but what about Green Toys' products?

"Green Toys are actually recyclable at end of life because we don't have any metal axles or screws or paints or additives. They are 100 per cent plastic and therefore can be recycled and re-purposed into something else," Passmore says. "That being said, we do think that the most environmentally friendly toy is one that doesn't reach end of life and therefore our toys are great for being passed down.

"They're durable, easy to clean, so you can throw them in the dishwasher, sterilize it, and it's ready for the next generation of kids. We've been around for 10 years and we have seen our products go through siblings to cousins to neighbours and continue on and on and still seem brand-new."   


To hear the full interview with Green Toys' Erin Passmore, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.