When the much-anticipated Barbie movie hit the silver screen, the planet was left grappling with a sudden shortfall in fluorescent pink paint—a fascinating headline, to say the least.
Yet, this was merely a precursor to a larger issue. The rise of movies and television series as cultural icons drives the toy industry into overproduction, and with that comes an often overlooked problem: a staggering amount of plastic waste. Recall the Baby Yoda craze post “The Mandalorian” in 2020 or anticipate the upcoming surge in Barbie sales, adding to the 60 million already sold each year.
The ubiquitous nature of toys as the most plastic-intensive consumer products is alarming, as highlighted by a United Nations Environment Program report from 2014.
And the problem doesn’t stop at production. The toy’s afterlife is grim, with recycling being rare. Complex combinations of materials render recycling efforts futile, turning once cherished playthings into eternal landfill occupants.
The toll of the dolls
Take a moment to reflect on a single Barbie. What’s the environmental footprint of its creation?
Historically, Dongguan in China, before the US-China trade dispute, was the birthplace of half the world’s toys, including a third of all Barbie dolls.
An American study last year delved into the climate cost per doll. Every 182-gram Barbie is responsible for 660 grams of carbon emissions, encompassing the entire lifecycle from plastic production to transportation.
Researchers further investigated other toys, like Lego sets and Jenga, leading to an astonishing average emission of 4.5 kilograms per kilogram of toys.
Such figures, when expanded to a national scale, reveal a stark reality. In the United States alone, plastic industry emissions are projected to surpass those from coal within less than a decade.
This raises a pressing question: how do we achieve zero emissions without outright banning the plastic toys that bring joy and entertainment to our lives?
The role for toymakers and governments
Sustainability in the toy industry is an issue that has largely slipped under the radar, but it’s time to focus our attention.
Manufacturers must explore low-carbon materials and easily disassembled designs. Lighter toys will reduce transportation emissions, and avoiding battery-powered options can prevent escalating the plastic waste problem into an e-waste crisis. Thankfully, there are companies already reducing plastic in packaging, a step towards sustainability.
In a promising endeavor, Mattel, the maker of Barbie, introduced a recycling scheme in 2021 for repurposing old toys, although this initiative has yet to reach Australia.
Through smart material choices and design, toymakers can make a difference. Supporting them, governments should impose penalties on high-impact plastics and set up recovery systems capable of handling toy recycling, akin to the bans on BPA in infant milk bottles.
Some brands, like Lego, are shifting from petrochemical-based plastic to sustainable alternatives like sugarcane-based plastic—a long but necessary journey.
While the pandemic boosted Barbie’s popularity, and the movie is likely to further spike sales, the longer-term trajectory seems to be dampening plastic toy consumption. The increasing focus on video games might be a cause for this trend, reducing plastic toys but raising e-waste issues.
What should we do?
Parents and doting grandparents may find it nearly impossible to resist buying toys, especially with children enamored by Barbie after watching the movie. The solution?
Avoid disposable, poor-quality toys. Opt for lasting, creativity-enhancing products like brick-based toys or magnetic tiles. Seek out secondhand options or toys made of recyclable materials—even Barbie dolls crafted from ocean plastics. By embracing these strategies, we can both indulge our children and play our part in a sustainable future.