Spielwarenmesse: Plastic Versus The Environment: A Threat To The Global Toy Industry?

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Plastic Versus The Environment: A Threat To The Global Toy Industry?

from Steve Reece

Awareness of the damage caused to ocean life by waste plastic items has risen to the fore recently. This has been an issue for quite some time, but a number of high-profile projects and television series (i.e. Boyan Slat’s Great Ocean Clean Up and Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet) have made this one of the most pressing environmental concerns of our times.

Aside from the concern this may cause toy people in terms of the health of our planet and the future wellbeing of our children, it should also be a concern and consideration as such a high percentage of toys are made of plastic or feature plastic in the packaging. Does this mean that the anti-plastic backlash will lead to a major threat to the toy industry? Well for certain, if you were doing a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), you would have to include anti-plastic backlash as a threat to the toy industry overall. In reality though, I am not sure how big a threat the plastic-environmental issue will represent.

Ocean Plastics & toys: 2 key facts

Firstly, the vast majority of plastic in the oceans is single use plastic i.e. food containers and drink bottles, plastic bags etc. A major secondary source of plastics in the ocean which are harmful to the marine environment are fishing lines and nets. So, if you take a macro perspective on ocean plastic, toys are not a significant factor.

Secondly, more than a quarter of the plastic in the ocean is thought to come from ten rivers in Asia and Africa, meaning that the primary toy consuming markets of North America and Europe are excluded from these primary polluting rivers. Now there is a counter argument that several of the Asian rivers run through manufacturing hubs used for toys as well as other consumer products, and that the population moved to those areas along these rivers due in large part to China’s manufacturing sector, however, this is not a direct link to the toy industry.

Indirect threats & opportunities

There seems little doubt that the tides are changing in terms of single use plastic around the world. This should not in itself be a major threat to the toy industry, albeit something we should embrace as consumers and global citizens. There are though, some areas we need to look at closely which may have an impact:

  1. Centralised solutions in Asia – bearing in mind so much of the world’s population is in Asia, and that Asian rivers are a major source of plastic in the oceans, it is quite likely we will see some kind of concerted centralised attempts to minimise single use plastics. This kind of indirect factor has had significant effect on the toy industry in other areas of environmental action for instance where paper mills have been rationalised and redirected in terms of environmental standards leading to increased toy packaging prices.
  2. Badly conceived or over extensive legislation in the West – anyone who has observed the global political environment in recent times will be aware of the growing propensity for backlash and over reaction. The toy industry en masse needs to monitor the potential negative effect of poorly thought out or over reaching legislation which ends up including plastic toys via careless definitions of product categories etc.
  3. Transportation and shipping materials from store – clearly the manner in which consumers or direct supply retailers transport toys is likely to change. They are less and less likely to carry toys away in a throwaway plastic bag or other disposable plastic.
  4. Packaging solutions – clearly throwaway single use plastic packaging is set to be under great pressure in the coming years, and so toy development and manufacturing will have to find more solutions from sustainably sourced paper-based packaging.
  5. Material developments –the pressure on plastic usage could also be an opportunity for the development of better materials – better in terms of environmental impact, but also in terms of other characteristics. Lego has already made several public announcements on their commitment to sustainable bricks by utilising sugar cane material or derivatives. They also have a corporate commitment to be using a sustainable material en masse by 2030. Hasbro have also announced they will be using plant based ‘plastics’ in packaging starting from 2019.

Alternative materials for toys are sure to come

So overall, clearly these are challenging times for the global marine environment, and logically we should expect to see a concerted global backlash against single use plastic usage. However, for the toy industry we should probably expect a more indirect impact, but with some key global players already moving towards sustainable sources, we are likely to see an advancement of alternative materials. We should hope it moves quicker than any legislation which may make such moves mandatory ahead of our ability to implement them.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spielwarenmesse eG.

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