Into the trash — that’s too often the fate for toys that have been well-used and outgrown or chewed up by pets and broken apart. Dolls, for example, can be too complicated for local recycling facilities to process, which is why toy companies like Hasbro and Mattel have paired up with TerraCycle, a company that aims to “recycle the unrecyclable.”
One year after Mattel launched its PlayBack program, Fisher-Price, one of the corporation’s many brands, has signed on, joining the likes of Barbie, Mega and Matchbox. This means children and parents are able to send back Barbie Dreamhouses, colorful Mega Bloks and now Thomas toy engines for recycling – any product that isn’t electric. The process is simple: toy owners can box up their playthings, print a prepaid label and send their package to Mattel. The company says it will recycle what it can into new toys. Other materials will be downcycled or converted into energy.
We’ve come a long way from the 1940s, when Fisher-Price started the trend of offering entirely plastic products. The novelty of plastic has worn off, though the durability and versatility continue to be hard to beat by metals, rubber or other materials. Still, the environmental issues are increasingly hard to ignore. An estimate from 2021 put plastic production en route to exceed the amount of greenhouse gases that coal-fired power plants produce before the turn of the new decade. And the pollution caused by discarded plastic products finding their way into streams, rivers and larger bodies of water is a growing problem that has already reached 14 million tons a year.
Mattel’s growing PlayBack initiative isn’t just a boon to the environment. It also provides the corporation with an opportunity for innovation and a source of second-hand material. As Pamela Gill-Alabaster, Mattel's senior vice president and global head of sustainability and social impact, describes in a press statement, “The Mattel PlayBack program has been eagerly received by consumers and has provided tremendous learning specific to the durability and disassembly of our products, which will aid in the future design of products made for the circular economy. We are also exploring new technologies in plastic processing and recycling, with our longer-term goal to use materials collected through Mattel PlayBack in future toy production.”
The initiative aligns with Mattel’s sustainability goals, specifically a 2030 aim for completely recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastics in products and packaging. It also keeps the multinational in line with customer preferences. A recent study commissioned by The Toy Association found that the sustainability of toys is important to over three-quarters of parents.
Initiatives like Terracycle are making it possible to transform industries that are heavily dependent on plastics. In a post about its process, the Trenton, N.J.-based company writes one of the most hopeful statements an environmentalist could read, “The good news is that most rubbish is technically recyclable.” Terracycle even accepts those materials that seem the least redeemable, from the red wax encasing Babybel cheeses to extinguished cigarettes.
But in a world where consumers are increasingly interested in decreasing their waste footprint, recycling may not be the be-all and end-all.
When Steve Rho, the CEO of sustainability-minded Big Future Toys, spoke with HuffPost, his recommendation to families was to rethink consumption habits. After all, while companies like Mattel are leading the way to a circular economy, the toy shelves in big-box stores are still saturated with virgin and non-recyclable plastics.
“This will sound crazy coming from a toy company ― maybe you don’t buy a toy, maybe you substitute an experience, a trip to the zoo or to a great show,” Rho said. “It reduces clutter in your home and you’re not using so many natural resources.”
Image credit: Mattel
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.