Toy industry sustainability was low on the list of priorities throughout the second half of the 20th century, when even toys that were built to last were often built out of plastic, and many were not designed to last beyond the following Christmas.
While a constant need to replace cheap and broken toys was good for manufacturers economically, it was not good for the environment, as more and more non-recyclable hard plastics found their way into landfill sites and, increasingly over time, into illegally fly-tipped waste too.
After decades of poor toy sustainability, environmental concerns are finally shifting consumer preferences and, with it, shifting manufacturers’ priorities for the middle part of the 21st century.
So just what are sustainable toys and how do they compare with some of the current generation’s childhood favourites?
How are toys made?
Mass-market children’s toys are usually not handmade. Instead, they are often produced by moulding plastic into a predetermined shape via extrusion or injection moulding.
Surface details such as stickers, transfers and hand-painted finishes are added to the assembled plastic item, or may be included separately for the customer to complete the final assembly.
Eco-friendly toys are often made of wood, and here the process is different, with machinery used to trim and plane the timber, cut it to shape, assemble the item, and sand and finish the surface of the wood.
Of course, there are some toymakers who use nothing larger than a hand tool to create artisan pieces, but for the mass market, a highly automated process is the standard.
What makes a toy eco-friendly?
The credentials of eco-friendly toys vary and may include any combination of:
- Carbon-neutral manufacturing
- ‘Natural’ materials (e.g. wood instead of plastic)
- Recyclable materials
- Recyclable/minimised packaging
- Renewable materials
- Responsibly sourced materials
- Zero-carbon delivery
Manufacturers with a focus on sustainable toys may also have other corporate responsibilities, such as a commitment to ethical working practices and to pay a fair wage no matter where in the world their toys are made.
What environmental issues does the toy industry face?
Toy industry environmental issues fall into several main categories:
- Raw materials (e.g. plastic vs. wooden eco-friendly toys)
- Packaging (e.g. sustainable toys packed with single-use plastic/polystyrene)
- Delivery (i.e. the ‘carbon miles’ clocked up during shipping)
Durable toys made with renewable materials are the best option for long-term sustainability. Disposable but recyclable toys are the next best option, but carry a carbon footprint due to their manufacture, delivery and plastic packaging.
Are plastic toys bad for the environment?
This is open to some debate, but there are several ways in which plastic toys are arguably bad for the environment.
Plastic toys are usually not acceptable in local authority kerbside recycling, so they are likely to find their way into landfill or, worse still, appear among illegal fly-tipping waste.
Cheap plastic toys, in particular, are often very flimsy, making it a safe bet that the first rough handling by a playful toddler will crack or shatter the plastic, which must then be thrown away due to worries about the safety of its sharp edges.
If plastic toys are built solidly enough, they can last a lifetime, although it is inevitable that they will be discarded eventually. But even in the meantime, plastic made from non-renewable sources depletes the planet’s increasingly scarce natural resources.
Sustainable toys need to be made from sustainable materials, using sustainable methods. While plastic toys can be durable and valued possessions for many years, by definition, they do not meet the standards required of eco-friendly toys.
Is Lego bad for the environment?
Historically, Lego sustainability has been relatively poor, although the longevity of the bricks themselves means they can offer decades of play without breaking or needing to be thrown away.
As of 2022, Lego is working to develop sustainable hard plastics to use in manufacturing future bricks to the same standards and dimensions as those made over the past 60 years.
Although this is still a work in progress, a prototype made from recycled PET plastic bottles is currently in a rigorous testing process and a target of 2030 has been set by Lego to find sustainable options for the main manufacturing materials used in the bricks.
Meanwhile, the disposable plastic bags used in Lego packaging are also under the spotlight, as the brand aims to switch to recyclable paper bags instead.
But all of this is only just happening, with likely adoption dates in 2025-30. In the meantime, Lego is strictly speaking a non-recyclable product with single-use plastic packaging, none of which is good for the environment.
Are wooden toys sustainable?
Wood is a completely renewable material (as long as it is responsibly grown and felled) and the only carbon it releases has previously been removed from the atmosphere during the tree’s growth.
As such, some of the best eco-friendly toys are made of wood, and a traditional good-quality sustainable toy like a well-made wooden rocking horse can become a treasured heirloom for future generations.
There are always environmental factors to take into account, including the packaging used and any accessories (e.g. nylon hair used on a rocking horse’s mane) as well as the carbon miles incurred during transport and delivery.
But when grown in a responsibly managed forest, wood as a raw material can be replaced in around 15-20 years, depending on the type of tree.
What to consider when buying sustainable toys
Truly sustainable toys are hard to find, so decide what your personal priorities are, and just do your best to check the credentials of the products you plan to buy.
Ask yourself a few simple questions, for example:
- Do you recognise and trust the brand/manufacturer?
- Can you check the claims of small/independent toymakers?
- Is it clear what packaging is used throughout the toy’s delivery?
- Will the toy be fully recyclable at the end of its life?
- How far away was the toy manufactured?
The best eco-friendly toys are made locally (fewer carbon miles during delivery) using responsible, renewable, recyclable materials, with minimised and recyclable packaging.
Best eco-friendly toys and sustainable toy brands
According to Allied Market Research in late 2021, some of the major players in the global sustainable toys industry included:
Le Toy Van
A British-based designer of eco-friendly wooden toys using repurposed wood, sustainably sourced materials and recyclable packaging – including a pledge to eliminate 100% of plastic packaging by 2023.
A German producer of eco-friendly toys primarily made of wood, with solar-powered headquarters, climate-neutral shipping and a net-zero website.
Tegu are based in Honduras and produce sustainably forested hardwood toys, such as building blocks with embedded magnets to hold them together. Tegu do not provide instruction manuals: their toys are intended to inspire creativity and imagination, while supporting an ethical workforce and responsible hardwood forests in Honduras.