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Leon Kaye headshot

Mattel Joins the Bioplastic Toy Brigade

Mattel announced this week it would start manufacturing some of its timeless Fisher-Price toys out of plastic derived from sugarcane.
By Leon Kaye

Toys, whether they are in the real or digital world, sure can help us get our minds off the day-to-day reality with which we’re now coping. And as is the case with many sectors, the toy industry will have to consider a reset once we emerge from this crisis. To that end, Mattel announced this week it would start manufacturing some of its timeless children's toys out of plastic derived from sugarcane.

It’s okay to put it in your mouth — these toys are made from sugarcane

These toys, which include the brands we remember from our youth (or that of our kids), include Fisher-Price’s Rock-a-Stack and Baby’s First Blocks. The revamped versions, which Mattel put on pre-sale just in time for Earth Day, follow on the heels of the company’s announcement several months ago that it would transition both its toys and packaging to 100 percent recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastic by 2030.

The toy giant also says it surpassed a 2018 goal of transitioning to 90 percent recycled material for its paper and wood packaging. At last check, Mattel’s packaging currently consists of 93 percent recycled paper or wood fiber.

Sustainable plastic is a challenge for the likes of Mattel and Lego

Mattel’s foray into bio-based plastics is welcome news. We will certainly need to find a way to manage the proliferation of single-use plastics as retailers ditch their reusable bag policies and consumers load up on bottled water during this crisis. And as the growth of medical waste surges, we also must confront the possibility that our waste streams could be disrupted over the next several months.

Just because we face a surge in plastic waste, however, doesn’t mean that we can expect supply chains to turn on a dime. Lego is one company that has faced its share of challenges while it soldiers on toward a 2030 goal to use 100 percent recycled materials in its iconic building bricks. The company said it took about two years to find a way to make those green bushes and trees in some of its building sets out of a more sustainable polyethylene.

But Lego, and its customers, expect those bricks to maintain their long-term durability and vivid colors — and they’ve got to remain stuck together, too. No one wants to buy a $100 Burj Khalifa set and have it risk crumbling or see the colors fade. “The company makes more than 3,700 individual elements,” explained Wired’s Brian Barnett in 2018. "It uses 20 different kinds of plastic to make those bricks, tires and adorable [mini figurine] helmets. And as many as 80 percent of Lego pieces consist of acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, or ABS, a petroleum-based substance that polyethylene can't hope to replace."

And while some environmentalists have been quick to point their fingers at toy companies for their contributions to plastic waste, let’s not forget the social benefit of a set Fisher-Price building blocks or a box of Legos — there are certainly far worse toys out on the market from a manufacturing or child development perspective.

Thinking out of the box — literally

Educational Insights, which dates back to 1962, is also rethinking how its toys are packaged. Its Design & Drill toy line includes an age-appropriate truck for which the packaging becomes part of the assembly process — in turn, helping to reduce waste. The toy’s design also offers another way in which the company can further its educational mission.

“Toys typically have been the opposite of sustainable — inexpensive, breakable, tossed aside when fads change, and most of the time made entirely of petroleum-based plastic,” Forbes’ Joan Verdon observed earlier this year. She’s right, but as is the case with the fashion sector, another industry critics view as wasteful, toy companies big and small see the writing on the wall (or toys on the floor): They are hearing from their customers, and they are shifting how they do business.

Image credit: Mattel

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye