Toxic toys and green alternatives

I grew up in an era when junky toys were really starting to become popular. We wanted them.. we begged our parents for them and sometimes we got them. While our parents may have taken into consideration the “junk” factor, it’s likely they didn’t see much beyond that – the environmental and human cost behind these items that usually became unused clutter after a short while. I’ve certainly also been guilty of giving toys with suspect origins.

As I’m writing this, I’m looking at a teddy bear I had as a baby – 37 years have passed and “Little Ted” is in fairly good condition given the treatment I would have dished out during my toddler years. Even now, simply looking at Little Ted brings a feeling of calm over me :). I wonder if the cheap teddy bears of today would survive as long as my cherished possession.

A scapegoat called China

There’s been a lot of press lately about toys being recalled due to issues such as lead lead contamination and poor construction. Many of these have been made in China. As I’ve mentioned quite often, it’s not the Chinese we should be laying the blame squarely on. It’s us.

We demand cheaper toys so we can buy more for less. Companies demand cheaper toys so they can make more profit. This pressure is brought to bear upon the manufacturers; who in order to meet our demands skimp on materials and the treatment of their workers. If they don’t meet the demands of distributors and toy companies, the western companies just move onto another company who will. This has to stop.

Toys of yesteryear

If we look back just a couple of generations, we find that our grandparents likely didn’t receive anywhere near the level of toys that we or our children have. Ironically, grandparents are also great toy givers.

In generations past, simple and sturdy toys were most common, encouraging a child to use their imagination when playing with them. Children also played outside more; there were more open spaces and natural places for them to play in relative safety compared to today.

Our children are now somewhat indoor hostages and more exposed to media than in the past – easy prey for toy marketers. The toy companies tell us what type of toys we should give, sometimes under the pretext of some of them being educational. The television blares with exhortations to children that x toy is a gotta have.

Toy marketing predators

Like so many other excesses in modern life, equating toy volume or giving what’s “cool” with good parenting is a sad side effect of nefarious marketing. More is not better. Parents need to take back control, to understand that quality is far more important than quantity.

After all, few loving parents would want to give their children toys that wreak havoc on the environment, pose a toxic risk to their children or were made by people working under pretty much slave conditions. Sometimes these toys are made by other children whom never get to play with the items they churn out. They earn just enough to fill their bellies with food.

Greener toy giving

There’s lots that parents can do to provide cleaner, greener and fairer toys for their children – here’s just a few ideas:

– Write to major toy companies demanding safe toys made in conditions where human rights are respected. Tell them that you will pay more for such items and will take your business to companies that can make such guarantees. Have other parents you know co-sign the letter.

– Buy used toys. This isn’t being cheap, it’s being environmentally responsible. Toys usually have a very limited active use lifespan, especially when it comes to very young children. Second hand toys may have only been used for a couple of months, perhaps never.

– Avoid battery powered toys, or decrease the number of these you buy. These are often fragile and once broken, unfixable. The number of disposable batteries consumed each year is incredible and batteries tend to wind up in landfill, poisoning the environment. If you do buy battery powered toys, consider also purchasing rechargeable batteries and a charger. You’ll save a ton of cash and your children are likely to get more use from the toys as they won’t always be hassling you for new batteries :).

– Try to stick with toys made from natural materials such as wood (sustainable certified) or consider buying bioplastic toys – this is a type of plastic made from natural base components such as corn.

– With wooden toys, perhaps buy unpainted ones, then paint them with watercolors or low VOC paints – get the kids involved, they’ll love it!

– Soft toys and fabrics such as dolls clothes may be made from natural fibers, but is it organic? Pesticide and herbicide spraying on fiber crops is rampant and some of the chemicals used can be particularly nasty – not just to the environment, but to humans too. This is of particular concern in regards to young children who have a tendency to put things in their mouths.”Little Ted” whom I mentioned earlier certainly looks as though he was chewed on by me a few times. Choose soft toys and fabrics that contain certified organic fibers.

– Look for terms such as “fair trade” on toy labels. This is an assurance that the toy has been made in conditions where workers are fairly paid and treated.

– Avoid toys made with PVC (aka polyvinyl chloride) plastics. PVC offgases dioxin throughout its use and dioxin is a potent environmental toxin that doesn’t easily break down.

– Consider starting up a toy co-operative in your neighborhood, a lending library of toys. That way your children will have different toys to play with regularly and they’ll learn about sharing, borrowing, returning and caring for items in their possession.

– Limit the instances that you give toys to major occasions; you’ll likely save enough cash so when the toy giving occasion does arise, you’ll have extra money to spend on quality items.

– Give toys that encourage environmental awareness. Sea monkeys or an ant farm are great for older children, bug catchers are still enjoyed by children today, renewable energy kits for the more mechanically minded child; there’s even some environmentally themed video games available now!

One of the greatest toys I ever had was the local forest. Take your kids to natural places as often as you can and watch their imaginations take over – no batteries required. I forget most of the toys I used to have, but I do remember many of the picnics with my parents. Childhood is a great time to cultivate a deep respect of the environment. Hands-on nature activities are great fun for most children, stimulating them and providing lessons that they’ll hopefully take into their adulthood.