Creating a circular economy for toys

Circular Economy on Medium

Design matters

While these solutions help keep toys that already exist in use, the long-term success of circular business models relies on new toys being designed and made for a circular economy. How durable a toy is designed to be, for example, can extend the time it is played with, and durability has as much to do with how desirable a toy is over time as its physical attributes.

In recent years, mystery — or blind-box — toys have dominated the toy market, with the infamous LOL toy range by MGA Entertainment, expected to generate USD 500 million for the business in 2020. The element of surprise might ‘spark joy’ but these toys are not designed to be desirable or physically durable for a long time, and the sector has been highlighted for its generation of plastic waste.

As a result, MGA Entertainment is exploring new material alternatives and has teamed up with recycling company Terracycle, aiming to ensure both its toys and packaging are recycled. Other businesses are exploring the mystery toy idea with the aim to design out plastic waste in the first place. This includes UK-based businesses Eco-Tots and Baba Me, which each provide mystery toy boxes filled with wooden toys.

As the element of surprise is fleeting, making toys that stimulate imagination is pivotal to maintain desirability. For example, Montessori toys — based on the work of Italian physician Maria Montessori and focused on childhood development — are designed to encourage children to experiment. Likewise, LEGO bricks are designed so that all elements fit together and can be used in multiple ways to create an endless array of brightly coloured structures. This means that bricks bought years ago will fit perfectly with bricks bought in the future, helping to secure a long use period and enabling them to be shared over and over.

Other toy-makers are following suit. In China, toy manufacturer Bamloff has created modular wooden robots — WooBots — that can be configured in many different ways to allow a child to build their own toy. Similarly, Copenhagen-based Modutoy has developed modular toy blocks made from recyclable plastic with the aim to create a toy experience that ‘fulfills the need to create, be imaginative, and urges kids to play actively using their whole body’.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In all cases, material choice and product construction also inform durability, as well as demarcating what happens to the toy when it is no longer played with. For businesses making new toys, thinking about the materials that go into those toys is vital to eliminate waste and pollution.

New LEGO bricks are currently made from virgin ABS plastic, however the company has set itself the target of making all of its pieces from renewable or recycled materials by 2030. In 2018, it started making a range of elements from sugarcane-derived polyethylene, a soft, durable, and flexible plastic. Sugarcane is fast-growing, doesn’t compromise food security, and is sourced using guidance from WWF. More than 80 LEGO elements are already made from sugarcane-based polyethylene, and although they represent just 2% of the 3,600 elements available, it is an important step towards a circular economy for the business. Brooks explains: “For the LEGO Group, a sustainable material must be produced responsibly using renewable or recycled resources, generating little or no waste in their production and using sustainable chemistry while meeting our high standards for safety, quality and durability — speaking specifically to the circular economy principle of ‘keeping products and materials in use’.”

Other manufacturers are also working towards making their toys from only recycled and renewable materials. This includes California-based Green Toys, which makes all of its toys from post-consumer recycled plastic — like milk bottles and yogurt containers — or renewable sources, such as organic cotton. The company also uses packaging made from 100% recyclable cardboard, stating that ‘each Green Toys box that gets recycled saves one gallon of water’. Consumer demand for toys made from recycled materials has been made clear by Green Toys’ success. Launched in 2007, Green Toys averaged 70% annual growth for its first two years, with annual sales just under USD 5 million, and now has a revenue of USD 12 million a year.

In the UK, start-up JUNKO has an alternative solution to make use of household waste. It provides kits that enable children to turn waste like boxes, bottles and cartons into homemade toys. The kit parts include wheels, frames and fixings made from recycled plastic, created using a 3D printer. They can be used repeatedly as an alternative to single-use sticky tape or glue that could also hinder the recycling process for the waste items when the time comes.

These efforts are important to prevent usable materials from ending up in landfill or in the environment. Together, they are key steps towards a circular economy in which toys are used more, and are made to be made again from recycled or renewable materials.

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