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Issue 01/2023

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Toys A vision for

Toys A vision for toys’ sustainable future S haron Keilthy is an environmental activist. Her activism is running the world’s first eco toy store, Jiminy Eco Toys, in Ireland. In this article Sharon shares her story, why toys need to change, her vision for toys’ sustainable future, and how we get from here to there – including what we all need to do (including you!) and debunking many common beliefs about sustainable toys. It was 2018 and my daughter’s fourth birthday was approaching. I went to a very nice Irish toy store to get her a gift. I was already awake to the plastic problem – the carbon emissions, the trash crisis. So I wanted to get her something she’d enjoy and I could feel good about – something plasticfree and made locally in Europe. But there was nothing like that in the store, and I came out empty-handed. I thought, “How can we expect people to choose sustainable when sustainable isn’t on the toy store shelf? We have to make it easy to do good – by making ‘good’ available! And if not me now, then who when, to do this?” So I started the toy retailer I wished the others were – offering all types of toys for every age from babies through teenagers – just the ‘eco version’ – meaning strictly no virgin petro-plastic, and made locally in Europe. That was 4.5 years ago. Jiminy is now one of Ireland’s largest independent toy retailers. So far we have: • empowered 15,000 customers to choose toys they can feel great about; • replaced EUR 2 million (retail value) of plastic toys with sustainable toys – for our climate that’s like having saved 4,500 mature trees from being chopped down; • brought our message, about why and how to choose sustainable toys, to a mainstream audience, e.g. with a Christmas pop-up in Ireland’s largest department store, and features in Ireland’s most-read newspapers and most-watched TV show – the Late Late Toy Show! That’s my story. But let’s revisit the case for change in toys – the toy industry is linear and intensely polluting and wasteful: 1. A toy’s beginning-of-life is highly polluting. We are in a climate crisis. Ellen MacArthur estimates use of plastic generates 6 % of global carbon emissions [1]. Toys is the world’s most plastic-intensive industry, with 90 % made from virgin petro-plastic [2]. Most then travel 22,000km to us from China. All emitting so much CO 2 we’d have to plant 1 billion trees to absorb it [3]! 2. A toy’s mid-life is hit-and-miss. The average child under twelve in Ireland receives 450 € per year [4] of new toys. How many hours does each get used? Some studies show toys disused within a month. 3. A toy’s end-of-life is a waste problem for families, local authorities, and charity shops. It’s socially unacceptable to give a gift of a used toy. Most toys are mixed-material so not recyclable. And if “recycled”, most toys actually get downcycled into park benches etc. So how do we change that? Let’s look at how my eco toy store Jiminy has changed it – debunking some common misconceptions about sustainable toys: Misconception: sustainable toys are all wooden Our eco toys are only 25 % wooden (sustainable wood), and the rest are bioplastic, recycled plastic, recycled cardboard, recycled wood, organic cotton, or beeswax. Misconception: it’s important toys are recyclable A durable toy we can expect to be used for 25 years – recycling technology and systems will be entirely different 25 years from now. So “recyclable” – meaning “can, in theory, be recycled if put into the right waste stream” is a bonus, but not at all as important as “already-recycled” – meaning “already made by using-up waste”. Misconception: it’s important a toy be biodegradable Why would we want toys to biodegrade? What if it gets left in the bathtub or garden or on the windowsill? And in general, recycling is usually better than biodegrading. Take a sheet of used paper – it takes much less energy and resources to recycle it into new paper than to biodegrade it into soil, grow a new tree, chop it down and make new paper from scratch. So once we have the toy, let’s first keep it in use for as long as possible, and only recycle it as a last resort. Misconception: sustainable toys are all beige We are not an “it looks Scandinavian chic so it must be sustainable” toy store. Our toys are full of colour because that’s what kids want. Misconception: sustainable toys are really expensive We cater to all but the smallest budgets, and our prices compare favourably to a lot of unsustainable mainstream toys. Misconception: it’s the transport from far away that’s the problem. Our eco toys are made in Europe, for minimal toy-miles. But let me ask you: for a typical made-in-China virgin petroplastic toy, which of these is 90 % of its carbon footprint? A. Transporting it 22,000 km by sea from China to Europe? or B. Making it from virgin petro-plastic? Most people choose A, but in fact, it’s B. What’s driving the climate crisis is petroleum. The science is very clear but sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves of that. So why do we focus on made-in-Europe toys? Because we’re perfectionists and saving 90 % of the carbon by avoiding the virgin petro-plastic isn’t enough for us – we want the whole 100 %. Misconception: sustainability is about packaging Packaging is the least important part of a toy’s sustainability. What % of the overall weight of the toy is the packaging? 1 %? 2 %? 5 %? Whatever it is, that’s also its share of the 32 bioplastics MAGAZINE [01/23] Vol. 18

Opinion toy’s environmental impact. So why has the toy industry been talking about sustainable packaging for 10 or so years, but not about the actual toy’s climate or trash footprint? Because packaging is easier. And because there’s more legislation affecting packaging (focused really more on food packaging). Misconception: sustainably-made new is the best you can do When you need a gift for a child, our eco toys are only the 3 rd most sustainable option. 1 st is a non-thing gift – an experience! Kids in the developed world have too much stuff! 2 nd -best is a toy that wasn’t made new – a pre-loved toy. 3 rd -best is a sustainably-made new toy, the kind Jiminy stocks. Let’s have a look at preloved toys. Right now: • Over 1 billion Barbie dolls have been sold since her creation [5]. There are only 200 million children in the developed world (5 Barbies each if we stop producing new toys now) or 2.2 billion children in the whole world [6] (1 Barbie for every 2 kids if we stop producing now). • There are some cool toy reuse initiatives: Rejoue in France collects used toys, checks, cleans, packages, and sells them in a bright mainstream mall shop. Whirli is a courier-enabled UK toy library. But they have limitations – Rejoue’s economics only work because it’s a social enterprise with Government-funded labour, and Whirli went bankrupt last year. So, toy reuse economics is hard. • Right now if someone gets a preloved Barbie – from Rejoue, a charity shop, friends, family, or Freecycle – Mattel loses a sale. How can we redesign this such that our toy makers are not reliant on the linear economy but have a role in – and earn a living from – the circular economy? • Examples from other industries might be: FairPhone (mobile phones designed for repair) and Zalando (mainstream German clothing retailer that sells its own clothes pre-loved as well as new). Let’s do some visualising What does the sustainable future of toys look like? Let me show you: It’s ten years from now. It’s a Saturday and you need a gift for a child in your life. You go to a big mainstream toy store and as you walk through the sliding doors, you see signs for the toy repair service, the spare parts section, and toys for rent. But you walk past those to the construction toys aisle and the soft toys aisle. You can’t help but notice that every toy on every shelf is made from recycled plastic or bioplastic or wood or cardboard. There are even refurbished “proudly pre-loved” toys in a nice giftable box with a guarantee. And you RELAX and choose the toy you know the child will love the most, knowing that whichever you buy, your gift will be protecting that child’s planet and future, not the opposite. We need to get from here to there. And we are all in this together. And there are a lot of opportunities to learn more and do more (see box). Please know: I am not judging anyone for what has happened up to now. But now we all have the urgent need for change in toys. And we know no one’s going to make it happen if not us. So the question our children will judge us all on is this: “What did you do, once you knew?” References [1] Source: [2] Source: Plastics Europe [3] For workings and sources see [4] For workings and sources see [5] Source: Wall Street Journal [6] Source: UNICEF Opportunities to learn more and do more: • Women in Toys, a Sustainability Learning Community offering monthly Zoom meetings sustainability-learning-community • bio!TOY Conference March 21-22 in Nuremberg (see pp 12) • STAC (Sustainable Toy Action Consulting) – a new group founded in Europe by experienced plastics / sustainability / toy people Harald Kaeb, Sonia Sanchez, Sharon Keilthy – • Social media follows: • • • • Info Let’s hear what the kids say about all this: Sharon Keilthy, Jiminy Eco Toys bioplastics MAGAZINE [01/23] Vol. 18 33

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