The topic of plastic waste is one of the more depressing ones to discuss even today, in the middle of 2020. What makes it so depressing isn’t just the fact that plastic waste has basically incalculable negative effects on our environment, on the climate, and even on our own health. What makes it even more unpleasant to discuss is that we’ve been talking about it for decades and things are still getting worse. It’s one of those constant reminders that we, human beings, just don’t learn fast enough.
Yes, things are being done about it. One good example is the Ocean Cleanup initiative. Organizations like that of Boyan Slat are crucial for remedying the problem and curbing its effects. But we need to do more. The stats show clearly that just trying to clean up our own messes is not enough – we need to become less messy as well.
And isn’t this a basic lesson we try to teach our children anyway? Why is it that adults haven’t learned it yet? And we do need to talk about our kids in particular here as they play a large role in the global plastic waste problem.
When we talk about reducing waste, we’re really talking about reducing the manufacturing of plastics. There are lots of areas where we can do that and some, where we can’t.
Plastic is intertwined in a lot of essential businesses and practices today. From food processing machines to medicine and clothing, plastics are everywhere and will continue to be used. Even things we’re used to viewing as “non-essential” such as computers and smartphones require some form of plastic. We can lower our use of them by not changing our smartphones every year and not buying so many clothes, but we’ll still need to buy at least some.
One thing we can do 100% without, however, are plastic kids’ toys. It sounds funny to say, but plastic children’s toys may just be one of the biggest problems we have today.
The role kids’ toys play in plastic waste
We’re used to seeing plastic water bottles and rubber flip flops when we’re talking about landfills or plastic waste in the ocean. The plastic bottles industry is indeed problematic but another major contributor is kids’ toys. A 2014 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has determined that “the toy industry belong[s] to the group that uses plastic most intensively in products.”
Thankfully, the problem has not remained unnoticed. More and more toy brands are taking steps to limit single-use plastics in their manufacturing process. Big companies like Hasbro have announced that they plan to phase out plastic packaging before 2022. Other organizations like ecoBirdy are actively working to help with the recycling of children’s’ plastic toys. Unfortunately, kids’ toys from recycled plastics present a whole new set of dangers, as shown by this Arnika report.
So, what can we do? Stop buying so many pointless, simple, boring, and straight-forward plastic toys!
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t buy any kids’ toys. Many are made out of metal or wood which are much better options than plastics. And many others like Rubix cubes, alphabet blocks, constructors, and so on, at least have long usability cycles and can be played with for years and even by multiple generations of kids. And how about coloring books, crayons or just good ol’ standard books? All these make for amazing toys and presents.
But the plastic toys found on the check-out lines of every single store? The flimsy cars, bikes, and dolls that break after several days of use? And that’s if our kids even play with them that much – most of these toys are so boring that the kids toss them aside after half an hour of play. Toys like that don’t even deserve to be called toys – they are just plastic waste, waiting to be paid for and then thrown away.
And it’s not just cheap toys that are the problem – major, expensive brands also produce so-called “waste toys” as well and very often throw them away before they’re even sold. Just take a look at what Disney is doing with whole heaps of their own Star Wars merchandise.
The simple reality is that we, at least in the developed world, live in consumer-driven economies. Yes, it’s the big companies that produce the plastic toys, they market them, they sell them, they create the problem. But we, the consumers, are the ones that incentivize them to create it with our wallets. We give them the carte blanche to create the problem and we are the ones who can stop it by just buying less plastic waste.
The negative effects simple toys have on the kids themselves
To make matters worse, the pointless plastic toys we’re talking about are bad for our children as well. Even if we ignore the problems of plastic waste, consumable microplastics, the use of finite resources, and so on, the toys themselves aren’t something parents should want for their kids.
Most basic plastic toys hinder our kids’ cognitive development
We talk a lot today about how bad it is to raise our kids on their iPads, laptops, and even just on TV, and how they need to play with simpler toys. And that much is true but what toys they’re playing with also matters.
A report published in the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) called “Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era” offers a lot of good examples and explanations for toys beneficial to our kids’ development. Pediatricians recognize that cognitive stimulation is an important part of children’s playtime if we want them to grow up smart, healthy, ambitious, imaginative, and successful.
“Play is essential to optimal child development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth” the report states.
The problem is that straight-forward toys like cheap plastic cars and dolls don’t really achieve that. They are flashy and interesting, and our kids really want them when they see them in the store, yes. But they are not what the kids need.
Instead, kids need toys that are both physical and interactive. Puzzles, building blocks, coloring books, toys that engage them and make them think. As a bonus, toys that help them socialize by playing with other kids or with their families are also great.
And, hey, if plastic dolls or cars do that for your child and if you know that your kid will play with them a lot – sure, there’s nothing wrong in getting such a toy. Especially if it was made out of renewable resources. But the reality is that most of the time, these toys are left unused and wasted.
Basic and straight-forward plastic toys turn our kids into chronic consumers
Consumerism is what makes the world go round. It’s also the leading cause of most of our problems. And the biggest issue with it is that it’s a highly addictive “social disease”.
The addiction of consumerism is based on simple biochemistry. When we want something and we get it, our brains release dopamine, which is a neurohormone produced by the hypothalamus. It’s known as the “pleasure hormone”. We’ve all experienced it and we all know it when we feel it. As pleasant as it is, however, it’s at the root of all addictions.
The big problem with dopamine is that it’s too easy to acquire. Even the smallest pleasure releases dopamine and gives us pleasure, thus making us addicted to it. And the more we want dopamine, the easier “fixes” for it we search for. That’s what most video games are based on – instant gratification.
The same happens with kids and their shiny toys. They see them, they are attracted by the pretty colors, the nice design, or the brand of the toys, and they start craving them. Every parent knows that experience – kids can act very desperate when they want something in the store. And when we give in and buy the flashy toy so they calm down – that’s when that juicy dopamine kicks in.
And just like that, you’ve given your child a whole new habit, a “quick-fix” dopamine addiction, and you’ve put them on the path of becoming yet another chronic consumer. And they’ll do the same to their children.
Break the cycle, get your child more meaningful toys that spark their imagination, engage their thought, and that don’t get thrown away after a couple of uses.
Alternatives to plastic single-use toys
We tossed a couple of suggestions above but let’s go through them here in a neat list. Also, we’re not saying that every child will love every single one of these suggestions – we’re all different and we all have our preferences.
What’s more, most interactive and complex toys usually require parental participation at first, to engage the kids and help them appreciate these toys and fall in love with them. But once they do, they can have endless hours of fun with toys that help them grow healthier and – as an added bonus – don’t pollute our oceans, don’t turn into microplastics, and won’t get eaten by our kids and grandkids after a decade or so.
- Coloring books, crayons, paint, and other art supplies can keep your child entertained for hours and turn up their creative side.
- Building blocks, playdough, puzzles, etc. are amazing both at sparking kids’ creativity and boosting their IQ.
- Interactive board games you know your kids will enjoy and replay a lot.
- Crafting tools – with these you can not only give your child something to play with but make them interested in a fun hobby. Indoor gardening anyone?
- Sports accessories. Balls, a bike, badminton rackets, anything your kid will love playing with you or with friends. This has the huge added benefit of including outdoor physical activities by default.
Or, you can just teach your child to love playing with what he or she has at hand. Blankets make for awesome superhero capes or magicians’ robes, pillows and cardboard boxes can create entire forts, simple sticks can turn into mighty swords, and so much more. We’re conditioned to think of this as “being cheap” but not only is it environmentally-responsible, it also serves to stimulate our kids’ creativity and imagination!