Children playing with plastic toys
Can plastic toys ever be sustainable? | Getty Images

There’s a Recycled Barbie Now, But Are Plastic Toys Really Going Green?

Mattel has a recycled plastic Barbie and LEGO uses a small amount of sugarcane to make its bricks, but can plastic toys ever be sustainable?

The toy industry is synonymous with plastic waste. Toys use 40 tons of plastic for every $1 million in revenue. Some of the biggest brands—from Mattel to Lego to Hasbro—have released ambitious initiatives to reduce their global plastic footprint. For instance, Mattel recently launched the “Barbie Loves the Ocean” collection made from plastic destined to become ocean waste sourced from Envision Plastics in Mexico’s Baja peninsula. 

“Ninety percent of toys are made of plastic and most of the packaging is single-use and non-recyclable plastic,” says Dune Ives, CEO of the ocean advocacy organization, Lonely Whale.

While it’s a step in the right direction that the largest mainstream toy companies are setting sustainability goals and releasing eco-conscious product lines, it’s unlikely the initiatives to reduce plastic in packaging or one-off collections will be enough to reverse the damage of the plastic toy industry. After all, a play kitchen is made of about 13 pounds of plastic—the equivalent of 400 empty single-use plastic water bottles. 

The new Barbie line is a small step towards reaching the brand’s lofty sustainability goals. Mattel has pledged to use 100 percent recycled, recyclable, or bio-based plastic materials across the entire offering and packaging by 2030. The company sources 93 percent of the paper and wood fiber used for packaging and products from recycled or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) content. 

Child playing with plastic toys
Toys use 40 tons of plastic for every $1 million in revenue. | Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Can Mattel Really Reduce Its Plastic Waste?

Barbie isn’t the only iconic toy cleaning up its plastic waste game. Mattel’s toy car company Matchbox launched the “Drive Toward a Better Future” commitment during Earth Month 2021 with the first step being to eliminate plastic packaging. The Matchbox Power Grabs’ die-cast cars come in zero-plastic packaging made of FSC-certified paper and wood fiber. The toy Tesla Roadster is made of mostly recycled materials—62.1 percent recycled zinc, 36.9 percent recycled plastic, and one percent stainless steel (not recycled) and will be available in 2022. Mattel intends to create Matchbox toy versions of BMW, Nissan, and Toyota’s hybrid and electric cars.

Mattel’s famous card game is getting the eco-treatment too. Uno released a 100 percent recyclable deck of cards. The cards themselves have always been recyclable, but the company is removing cellophane packaging from card decks this year.

MEGA, Mattel’s building sets, has a selection of block products made of bio-based plastic using FSC-certified recyclable packaging. Mattel also makes the Fisher-Price Rock-A-Stack from bio-based sugarcane-based plastics which is packaged in 100 percent recycled or sustainably sourced material.

To combat plastic waste from discarded Barbie, Matchbox, and MEGA toys the company is slated to launch the Mattel Playback program to provide free shipping labels to encourage customers to return used toys so that Mattel can repurpose the materials to create new toys. 

Sustainability expert Kristy Drutman says it’s greenwashing for brands like Mattel to say they’re promoting sustainable everyday behaviors. “If their day-to-day operations aren’t being improved to be more sustainable, framing the burden of sustainability to be the issue for consumers to deal with avoids corporate responsibility for the issue at hand,” she says.

LEGO Wants to Build a More Sustainable Future

Some large toy companies are making measurable changes. For instance, LEGO runs completely on renewable energy. Yet making the products requires more than 100,000 metric tons of petroleum-based plastic a year and 10 percent of the product’s packaging requires around 5,000 metric tons of plastic annually. 

LEGO is trying to combat the fact that plastic LEGO bricks can survive in the ocean for up to 1,300 years through a program to repurpose old toys, LEGO Replay. As there are more than 400 billion LEGO bricks in existence there are plenty available to buy secondhand. 

The company invested $400 million into sustainability initiatives, including working towards carbon-neutral operations by 2022. The toy company has invested in wind power and cut ties to SHELL after 50 years. They’re switching from single-use plastic bag packaging to recyclable bags made with FSC-certified paper by 2025. LEGO hopes to make all products from sustainable materials by 2030.

The company just unveiled bricks made from recycled plastic bottles. The product of three years of development, LEGO says it hopes to feature the recycled plastic bricks in sets within the next two years. About two percent of LEGO bricks are made from responsibly sourced sugarcane in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund certified by the Bonsucro Chain of Custody Standard. “This action was a massive lift within a heavily regulated industry. They’ve also made great strides in their use of renewable energy and are beginning to address their plastic packaging. This move by LEGO created a new standard within the toy industry and since this announcement other companies like Mattel have followed suit.” Ives says.

Hasbro toys and games
Hasbro is phasing out plastic packaging by 2022—but not plastic toys. | Hasbro

What Will It Take To Make Plastic Toys Truly Sustainable?

Hasbro is phasing out plastic packaging by 2022—but not plastic toys. Board games including Monopoly and Scrabble will no longer have plastic bags, elastic bands, shrink wrap, or window sheets. The company’s sustainable goals also include reducing landfill waste by half, greenhouse gas emissions by a fifth, water consumption by 15 percent, and energy consumption by 25 percent by 2025. The brand’s toys can be recycled via TerraCycle which turns them into new products. Hasbro provides a free shipping label to send old toys to be upcycled into something new.

Big toy brands must do more to combat the industry’s overt plastic use. The negative impact the toys are having on the environment will endanger the future for the very children who are playing with the toys. Ives shared that an alarming 80 percent of all toys end up in a landfill, incinerators, or the ocean. 

Creating more sustainable products is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough to reverse damage or ensure true environmental stewardship. “The whole supply chain needs to be tackled—not just a product line. Toy companies need to develop a very transparent lifecycle analysis of its products and processes to reduce water waste, reliance on petroleum, chemicals, and disposal,” Drutman says. Until mainstream toy companies apply sustainable practices to all aspects of their business, toys will continue to inherently be unsustainable.