Plastic toys are everywhere and with good reason: plastic is great for making toys. It is cheap and durable, and can be moulded into pretty much any shape.
Most of these toys are made with conventional plastics derived from non-renewable petrochemicals, but an increasing number are made from bioplastic – plastic produced from biomass. For example, Bioserie Toys, based in Hong Kong, say that the plastic in their products is 100% bio-based with zero fossil carbon and that they use no oil-based chemicals in their production processes. “Furthermore, we don’t just assume those oil-based toxic chemicals are not there, our products are tested and certified by renowned third parties to be free of any oil-based chemicals,” they explain.
In 2015, Lego announced that it hopes to replace all the plastic in its toys with sustainable alternatives by 2030. The Denmark-based toy giant has invested 130 million Euro in a sustainable materials centre, for developing alternatives to oil-based plastics. The company says the move will reduce its carbon footprint and reliance on fossil resources.
There is also evidence that consumers like bioplastic toys. Klaus Menrad, a renewable resources expert at the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Science in Germany, and his colleagues asked more than 500 parents about their thoughts on a set of bioplastic sand toys. They found that while price was the most important factor governing whether the parents liked them, two-thirds of them were prepared to pay a limited price premium for bioplastic toys.
Klaus Menrad says that parents are interested in bioplastic toys, but their expectations are high. “They expect that bio-based plastic should be 100% bio-based,” he explains. They also want it to be made locally and from biomass from Europe. And, they ideally want the biomass to be an organic, non-genetically modified, non-food crop.
According to Menrad these expectations are quite common when it comes to bio-based products. He says that people transfer what they know about sustainable food – and sometimes bioenergy – production to bioplastic. “The problem is they also put a lot of emphasis on price,” he adds.
Another problem is that consumers don't really understand bioplastics, with most giving incorrect answers to questions about them, Menrad says. He adds that the most common misconception is that all bioplastics are biodegradable.
Moritz Petersen, at Kühne Logistics University in Germany, says that concerns about consumer knowledge also put product developers off bioplastics. When Peterson spoke to small businesses about using bioplastics a product developer at a toy company said: “With our first bioplastics based products, customers had no idea what to do with it once they were done using it. How do I discard this? Can I put this on my compost, in the organic waste bin, should I burn it? There was a lot of confusion.”
There is also confusion around what consumers want. “In surveys people say they want more sustainable products, they will pay more,” Peterson says, “but then at the shelves they act differently.”
Menrad says that parents also believe that bioplastics are less toxic than conventional plastics. They are interested in them because “they see them as more healthy for my child”, he says.
Martin Wagner, a toxicologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, says that it is a misconception to assume bioplastics are safer. Most health concerns about plastics are linked to plastic additives, chemicals added to give polymers desirable properties, like flexibility and durability. “There are very few polymers that come with little added chemicals because they simply don't work without added chemicals,” Wagner says. “They are needed for bio-based plastics and conventional plastics.”
The most well-known plastic additive is bisphenol A, or “BPA”, an endocrine disrupter that has been linked to developmental and birth defects, and other health issues. BPA is banned in some products, but many other plastic additives are also endocrine disrupters. The problem, Wagner explains, is that many different chemicals are added to plastics and we have very limited scientific understanding of their toxicity and effects on human health. According to Wagner very little research has been conducted on additives in bioplastics and their toxicity. “It is an unknown field,” he says.
These issues are important for toys because children are more susceptible to the toxic effects of chemicals and they like to put things in their mouths, increasing their exposure. “We know that chemical toxicity at a very early stage of life can reprogramme development and make the kids more susceptible to disease later in life,” Wagner says.
“European Bioplastics and its members are committed to avoiding the use of harmful substances in their bioplastics products,” says Katrin Schwede, head of communications at European Bioplastics. “Many plastic products do not use any plasticisers but a range of acceptable plasticisers is available if necessary.”
“Compostable plastics, in particular, that are tested and certified according to the European standard for industrial composting EN 13432 are also always tested on ecotoxicity and heavy metal contents to ensure that no harmful substances are left behind,” Schwede adds.
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