For nearly 75 years, Mattel has filled our childhoods with toys from brands like Barbie, Hot Wheels, Fisher-Price, and Thomas the tank engine. (Earlier this week, I wrote about how American Girl, another Mattel brand, defined and shaped my childhood.)
But all of these toys have one thing in common, which is that they all have a large plastic footprint. Plastic is a very useful material in toys, since it is durable and unbreakable. That’s why it’s in dolls, building blocks, and train sets. And as any parent will attest, toy companies also use large quantities of plastic in their packaging, from the cling film that wraps the toys to the clear boxes that display toys on shelves.
This week, Mattel announces that it is going to replace all the traditional, petroleum-based plastic in its supply chain with more sustainable versions over the next decade. This means using recycled or bio-based plastic materials in its products and packaging. In some cases, it will use virgin (or new) plastic but ensure that this material is recyclable.
With this initiative, Mattel is joining some other large players in the toy industry in rethinking its materials. Most notably, my colleague Adele Peters has reported about how Lego has been working for years to switch its supply chain from oil-based plastic to the plant-based kind, and announced this year that it expects to fully switch to either sugarcane-based or recycled plastic by 2030. The company also just piloted a program in which it invites customers to send old Lego bricks back so they can be repackaged and donated to charities.
These toy brands are responding to the growing consumer awareness that plastic is a scourge on our planet. Since the material does not biodegrade, it takes hundreds of years to decompose, clogging up our landfills and slowly releasing greenhouse gases. Plastic also ends up in our oceans, where fish mistake it for food, and tiny fragments of plastic end up in the human food chain, sickening us.
While the switch toward more sustainable plastics is an important step in the right direction, it’s no a silver bullet solution to the plastic crisis. Plant-based plastics require less carbon to manufacture than the oil-based kind, but they are still not biodegradable. And while toy companies are working to make their toys recyclable, National Geographic reports that 91% of plastic is not recycled, so these toys are likely to end up in landfills, incinerators, or the ocean at the end of their life.
The solution to this problem is for companies like this to invest in material science to develop new materials that could be a viable alternative to plastic, but that are biodegradable and carbon-neutral. In the meantime, though, switching to more sustainable plastic is an important intermediate step.
This week, Mattel announced its very first product made from fully recyclable plant-based plastic: Fisher-Price’s Rack-a-Stack toy, which the brand introduced in 1960 to introduce babies to relative size and stacking. Over the next few years, Mattel will roll out more lines that will be made in a more sustainable fashion.