With Peanut’s second birthday fast approaching (I don’t know what’s more frightening; the continuation of the terrible two’s, the impending threenager or the fact it’s been well over two years since I slept through the night), I figured now is as good a time as any to talk about the environmental impact of kids toys.
Many children’s toys of today are much like the fast fashion industry:
- They are cheaply made from plastics – which are derived from fossil fuels
- They have planned obsolescence in mind
- Are usually quite easy to break
- Are hard to dispose of and rarely recyclable – including any plastics contaminated by metal or anything made from plywood, MDF, painted timber or silicone
- When not disposed of correctly some toys can leach toxins into the ground – particularly those with batteries and those containing PVC
Pair that with the fact every single piece of plastic ever made is still in existence and a throw-away society, it’s no wonder our landfills are choking with discarded children’s toys that don’t even count as pre-loved as they never lasted long enough to reach that stage in the relationship.
A bucket of cheap, crappy toys at our local op shop – I think half of these probably came from McDonalds Happy Meals.
A discarded Teletubby toy in landfill, credit: Flickr
Before Peanut was born, I made it my mission to purchase as much as possible secondhand, including toys, as a way to minimise our impact. Because I was buying toys and books secondhand, I found it hard to pass up a bargain, bringing home everything that took our fancy. This habit created a mass of clutter around our tiny house – making the minimalist inside me is cringe!
The bottom 12 shelves are all Peanut’s toys and books – this isn’t including the ones she has grown out of or hasn’t grown into yet, nor her bigger play stuff like trike and play kitchen!
Prior to doing any research for this post, I didn’t even mind some of the cheap plastic toys – as long as they were secondhand, I theorised the plastic was already in existence so I wasn’t adding to the problem.
A shapes game made from cheap plastic that brought quite a bit of entertainment and a singing recycling truck. Both of these are on loan from a friend. I actually really like the singing recycling truck… “not everything is rubbish, think before you throw, if it can be recycled, into this truck it goes”.
Usually I have a rather strong dislike for noisy toys, nothing environmental, just personal taste and believe they hold little educational worth. Seems I’m not the only one. Recently I picked up a copy of Sustainable Baby by Debbie Hodgson and opened it to the chapter on toys:
It would be impossible to prevent a child playing – it is as natural instinct as eating or sleeping. If a baby has nothing around her she will play with her own fingers and toes. Yet parents ‘ eagerness to provide children with sufficient stimulation has been exploited by marketing to get parents to buy lots of ‘educational’ toys. The result is the home becomes littered with plastic items and toys that do amazing things and emit surprising sounds, but don’t really sustain baby’s interest for that long.
During my research, I was shocked to learn some children’s toys still contain toxic substances such as BPA and PVC. Some researchers claim BPA, at high doses, can negatively impact the liver and kidneys, and it may possibly affect reproductive, nervous, immune, metabolic and cardiovascular systems. Take BPA out of the plastic and it’s probably just replaced with another, equally alarming and potentially toxic substance. This is the ugly truth behind plastic. PVC on the other hand is toxic in its making, toxic in its life and toxic in its disposal. How Stuff Works explains it in more depth here. According to What to Expect, the safest bet in plastic toys is to look for codes 1, 2 or 4 to avoid harmful toxins.
Where we did well:
- Purchasing the vast majority of Peanut’s toys secondhand, including those for special occasions (birthdays, Christmas)
- Putting toys away so they can be rotated
- De-cluttering and donating any toys that didn’t spark interest (as of 2018)
- Allowing for messy play – play dough, painting, drawing and water play, instead of expecting toys to do all the entertaining
- Incorporating a lot of outdoor play – playgrounds, parks, jumping in puddles, walks, Prahran petting zoo and beetle finding expeditions
Room for improvement:
- Buying every book and toy that seemed a bargain from the op shops – in turn allowing the house to become cluttered with toys
- Purchasing new books without hesitation or consideration for environmental impacts (many books are not printed on paper from sustainable sources)
- Not considering the material of the products – no consideration for cradle to grave life cycles, justified by saying the product is already in existence because it was purchased secondhand. This includes not understanding the potential hazards with toxic substances in some plastics
So what is the environmentally friendly option when it comes to toys? The three R’s of sustainability of course!
DISCLAIMER: I am not a parenting expert, sometimes I wonder how we even made it to two with no serious problems. So with that in mind, take any advice here with a pinch of salt.
1. Reduce the amount of toys you have for your child/ren. This means saving purchases for special occasions and having those difficult conversations with family about showing some restraint when it comes to presents. Of the toys you already have, determine what your children actually use, what is sentimental and what can be donated to charity.
While we’re campaigning our house for auction we’ve chosen to ‘style’ our apartment. In doing this we limited toys to these three boxes. Surprisingly, Peanut doesn’t seem to be pining for the other nine boxes packed away. When we unpack at our new house I will definitely do a toy cull.
Here are some alternative options:
- Toy Library: personally I have never used one , but really should avail as you can test and see what toys your child is interested in without having to buy them, new or old. I imagine people who use toy libraries have much less clutter around the house, that in itself is worth giving it a crack.
- Stop: literally just stop buying them toys. The more you buy them the less appreciative they will become when it comes to birthdays or special occasions. There’s nothing wong with a lesson at the School of Hard Knocks. I had to have this conversation with myself about six months ago, thankfully I listened.
- Give them something else: let them play with everyday things that they seem to be interested in; a bucket of pegs, pots and pans, dress ups, sticks, worms, puddles… the list is endless!
- Get creative: play dough has brought Peanut hours of entertainment, grab some scrap paper and start drawing or painting or bake a yummy treat together. Pintrest is awesome for creative ideas to entertain children.
2. Reuse old toys. When the time comes to gifting a toy, there’s nothing wrong with pre-loved. It doesn’t have to be from the op shop, Facebook Marketplace is an endless source of treasures. Are your parents hoarders? Lucky for me, my Mum kept many of our good quality toys, just waiting for the day one of us announced she was to be a Nana. Peanut’s inheritance includes a timber sink and cupboards, Duplo, Lego and an amazing handmade timber doll’s house. *Toy libraries and real libraries also fall into this category.
3. Recycle (or really this should be repurpose) other stuff into toys. I have an aunt who is the champion of crafternoons. One of my fondest memories is making a car from an old cardboard box with her and my cousins. There is a plethora of information on the internet and Pintrest on ways to reuse everyday items from around the home and turn them into toys. Peanut’s first birthday present was a toddler busy board made from exactly this.
Peanut’s first birthday present – a toddler busy board.
I now understand that, just because a toy is secondhand, it doesn’t mean it is ok to bring it home. To learn from this audit we will follow the three R’s of sustainability and when the time comes to gifting more toys, we will use the following hierarchy:
- Hand-me-downs: they often hold sentimental value and can spark moments of nostalgia.
- Purchase secondhand: Look for good quality products that will last and take into consideration their full life cycle. Sometimes this may include plastic products.
- Make it myself: when using this option we will endeavour to repurpose as mush material as possible.
- Buy new from recycled materials. Peanut has a couple of books printed on recycled paper.
- Buy new from natural materials: wood, bamboo and natural cloth. These are generally sturdier, easier to repair and as long as they haven’t been contaminated they can generally be recycled (be mindful of painted and coated timber, or MDF and plywood as these cannot be easily recycled). Metal is also a really sturdy material to use for toys that is usually recyclable.
Secondhand puzzles (made from plywood – not recyclable but Peanut loves them), a secondhand children’s book about looking after your planet (not printed on recycled paper), children’s book made from 98% post consumer paper – a new gift, and a wooden train also a new gift, part painted, part natural timber.
NB: I try to, and will continue to, avoid buying new plastic toys, especially those that require batteries as they are difficult to dispose of at the end of their life. It is also sometimes difficult to determine when plastic is PVC or not, so avoidance is the best measure. The further I delve into this audit, the more I realise the ongoing problems with plastics.
EDIT: Since writing this post I’ve been contemplating how much we really enjoy books and reading. If I were to buy anything new or in excess it would be books. My audit recommendation to myself is to make use of our local library and continue to source books secondhand.