Consequences of the excessive use of materials
People use materials so excessively that we are now confronted with alarming developments. In the near future, we will see a shortage of numerous types of materials. They will become expensive or may temporarily not be available at all. Materials are also responsible for just under half of all greenhouse gas emissions. The other half comes from energy consumption. Extensive research is being carried out in order to find more sustainable solutions and to counteract the resource-wasting mindset. What do the solutions look like? In essence, it can be summed up simply.
Circular economy and reduction are the key
The best solution is prevention. This is a top priority in environmental legislation. Less consumption is good - meaning weight saving, going small, more air rather than material. In this context, the longevity of a product is also important: The longer something remains in use, the more stable it is, the less likely it is to become waste and thus a problem. We all know toys that generations of kids played with. They were and are able to do so because the materials that were used made it possible. Wood and glass do. Metallic or mineral materials as well. But also dolls or plastic game pieces can remain in use for over 50 years. The prerequisites for this to be possible are appropriate product design and the use of suitable materials. If it ends up costing significantly more and the prices (or margins!) are much higher, the consumer will think: That’s no problem, I’ll only be buying once in the long term, which is also more sustainable! Manufacturers do not have to produce cheaply and in enormous quantities - it is up to them.
But many consumers want new things all the time. If they still want to protect the environment and the climate - and who doesn’t these days - there are only a few options left. Materials need to be intetrated into a circular economy, which means that they need to be recycled at the end of their life cycle in a waste treatment system in such a way that the resulting secondary materials (recyclates) can be used to replace virgin materials. Recyclabe materials are therefore the prerequisite for a circular economy. This in turn means that homogenous materials, or at least materials that can be separated from each other easily, should be used. The cycle is only complete when recycling actually takes place and the recycled materials are re-used in a high-quality manner. This is not a problem for glass, metal or wood, but it is for plastics.
Recycled plastics as playing material
In a 2014 UNEP study (the UN Environment Programme), the toy industry is described as the industry that uses the most plastic in comparison with others (automotive, textile, packaging, etc.). Plastic is the most used material for toys, while they are usually packaged in it as well. Packaging may only amount to a small part of the total plastic consumption in the toy industry, but due to its large overall volume, recycling systems for plastic waste focus on it. Therefore, toy manufacturers that want to use recycled materials will primarily encounter sources that are supplied by packaging recycling.
The use of recyclates is not directly regulated. However, legislation requires toys to be absolutely safe as a part of manufacturer responsibility and product safety. Using recycled plastics currently results in a higher risk of introducing hazardous materials and contaminants. Certain measures are necessary to eliminate such risks: The source of the plastic should always be the same, while the quality should be as high and as precisely defined as possible. Collected and recycled industrial plastic waste is more suited for this than consumer waste, which is usually mixed to a high degree and loaded with contaminants. Nevertheless, each batch should be checked for unacceptable contaminants and be free of them. Advertising the use of recyclates must not refer to a company’s own waste from the manufaturing process; that would be unauthorised greenwashing. This also applies to the use of recycled materials for packaging if the advertising statement is unclear and could be understood as refering to the entire toy.
Most of the recycled plastics used in the toy industry today come from PET bottle processing. The amount of material that flows here is substantial, while the risk of contamination is relatively low. PET bottles can be processed into recycled PET thermoplastics and fibres. Transportation and food packaging are also potential sources. In addition to the widespread PET, PE and PP are also recycled, as are small quantities of PS, ABS and PVC.
For toys, chemical recycling may be the future rather than the mechanical plastic recycling described above. This technology is still under development, but the few small plants today are paving the way for many large ones to emerge this decade. In chemical recycling, complex processes are used to produce plastics that are as good as new. Therefore, the risk is similar to that of virgin materials. Consequently, chemical recycling is likely to be the future for demanding products such as toys.
Recycled materials typically have a much smaller carbon footprint than virgin materials. Toy manufacturers that want to use recycled plastics should definitely do their research on the topic and develop their own critical expertise.
Materials from renewable sources
Wood and papers and cardboard made from wood, natural rubber and natural fibres such as wool are traditional materials for toys. What they all have in common, is that the carbon that forms them comes from the atmosphere rather than fossil sources. Therefore, their material carbon footprint is by definition zero. If only renewable energy is used for their production, they are 100% climate neutral. Together with recyclates, they thus belong to the class of materials that make strong contributions to climate protection. Plastics that are made either partially or completely from renewable raw materials have also been around for some years now. In the toy industry, bio-based PE (Bio-PE) is the most widespread. For almost all polymeres used in the sector, 1:1 substitutes are available today (so-called drop-in bioplastics). However, they are not produced in large quantities yet, and in some cases, as is done with green electricity in the grid electricity mix, only a bio-attributed share is calculated. Furthermore, there are innovative types of bio-based plastics such as the polyester PLA, which has new and interesting material properties. However, these plastics usually require technical adaptations in production. They will also play their part in the future. The higher the demand and the clearer the framework conditions support climate protection, the faster said future will arrive. It will soon be hard to imagine that the prices of fossile materials did not include the destruction of nature and the climate!