More sustainability through recycling
Why you can’t just make something new out of old toys
Plastic toys can only be recycled under certain conditions.
© Source: Unsplash/Sandy Millar
It’s a test first. Toy manufacturer Schleich, known for horses, dinosaurs and smurfs, wants to collect broken or discarded figures in order to recycle them. This project is part of a larger sustainability strategy with the aim of making all figures and packaging easily recyclable or biodegradable by the end of 2027. This also includes the use of mainly water-based paints, the reduction of packaging waste and the use of renewable energies for production.
In the face of growing mountains of garbage and scarce resources, this is a concern shared by many companies in the toy industry. But there are still a few question marks, especially when it comes to recycling, as Kimberly Simancas, materials scientist and “Director of Innovation” at Schleich, reports. “We would have expected more returns of discarded toys. Instead, old stealth figures are more likely to be sold at the flea market or stored in the attic for the next generation, which of course makes us happy.” The problem: Only when enough old animals come together can they be made into granules that can be used to manufacture new figures and products can be used. The inflow of a few tons per month is even necessary for the development of a real circular economy. Only then will the systems for sorting and processing the old toys pay off. But as long as only a few characters come back, only small test runs are possible.
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It needs materials with little color and impurities
Because other manufacturers are also struggling with collection problems, there are currently no practical recycling solutions in the industry. “In order to set up an effective recycling cycle, large quantities of the same materials as possible with few colorings and other impurities are required,” says Dieter Stapf from the Institute for Technical Chemistry at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. An example of such an effective recycling are PET bottles. They are collected using a separate system or can easily be sorted out of the garbage. Once they have been cleaned, they are made into granulate, which ideally can be used again for new bottles, cleaning agent containers or proportionately as polyester fibers for clothing.
Toys, on the other hand, usually end up in household waste and are incinerated. There are no exact figures on how many recyclable materials are lost in this way. This is also due to the differences in quality. In addition to traditional brands such as Playmobil, LEGO, Schleich or Mattel with very long life cycles, there are also many no-name cheap products on the toy market that break quickly or only follow short-lived trends. They end up in the garbage very quickly.
Currently, downcycling is the solution
From Stapf’s point of view, it is still important that toy manufacturers, who are known for their longevity, also deal with the topic of recycling. “It is always better for the climate and the environment than producing new plastics. At the same time, the impression should not be given that you can simply melt down an old doll or toy car and process it into new toy products,” he says. If a so-called recyclate is made from plastic waste, the plastic usually loses quality and can no longer be used for the same product. The standard at the moment is therefore more of downcycling – that is, use for rather inferior products.
A project by the Barbie doll manufacturer Mattel shows what is already being made from old toys. Similar to Schleich, Mattel wants to make its toys and packaging entirely from recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastics by 2030. For a recycling test run, collection boxes for old toys were set up in over 100 schools and kindergartens. The incentive for collecting: For full boxes, the schools receive “environmental points” which they can exchange for handicraft materials, books or sports equipment. The idea was developed by the Dresden recycling startup HolyPoly. “The collected Barbies or Matchbox cars are mechanically recycled in a test facility. The toys are sorted by hand and usable plastics are reused,” says HolyPoly founder Fridolin Pfluger, describing the process. Despite some positive approaches, we are still a long way from a recycling Barbie. At the moment, the plastic from dolls or toy cars is used to build flooring and play equipment for playgrounds. The decisive advantage: The requirements in terms of color durability, elasticity and appearance are significantly lower than for a doll.
Permitted ingredients have changed over the years
Pfluger does not yet know how much play equipment will be created in the end. Here, too, the amounts returned have so far been rather small – and that’s not the only problem. “First we have to find out which materials can actually be collected and used further. We get a colorful hodgepodge of toy history and materials,” he explains. It is not uncommon for the dolls or cars collected to be ten or 20 years old.
During this time, limit values and materials have changed significantly, such as a recent study from the University of Gothenburg. The Swedish researchers examined the ingredients of a total of 157 old and new plastic toys. They discovered harmful chemicals in 84 percent of the old models that have long since disappeared from today’s toys – such as phthalates and short-chain chlorinated paraffins. They have long been used as plasticizers and flame retardants. It is now known that they increase the risk of cancer and can even reduce fertility in the long term. In some samples, the limit values were exceeded by a factor of 400. In such cases, recycling is simply not possible and safe disposal is the only option, the researchers write. At the same time, the study makes it clear that reliable rules for the contents of toys are an important basis for a functioning circular economy. “We are therefore not only working on a collection system, but are also looking for materials with which Matchbox cars or Barbies can be reliably recycled in the future,” says Pfluger.
The search for a recyclable material mix is ongoing
Simancas and her team at Schleich are pursuing a similar goal. They are looking for sustainable and recyclable plastics that meet the high standards for toys in every country and continue to be fun for children. To do this, they test plastics made from renewable raw materials as well as the material mix with a higher proportion of recycled plastic. The materials scientist is unable or unwilling to say exactly how long the search will continue. Just this much: The demands on the new plastics are high. Up to 200 different shades must look radiantly good. The level of detail of the figures must not decrease either. “A recycled coffee mug might be forgiven for colored traces from a previous life. But nobody buys a T-Rex without claws and with strange colors just because it was produced more sustainably,” says Simancas. Durability is also a challenge. The figures must continue to be unbreakable in the wild everyday life in the children’s room. If the figures are easier to recycle, but break down more quickly, that’s not a gain in terms of sustainability.
When buying, customers look primarily at price, entertainment value and quality, as a survey conducted by the opinion research institute YouGov in 2021 showed. Only 14 percent of those surveyed stated that they pay attention to the sustainability of materials and packaging. And so there are often very mundane reasons why a material fails. Market research with families makes it clear that Schleich figures made from sustainable materials are well received. However, Simancas is still not completely satisfied: “High quality and quality are our top priority. This also includes the weight and feel of the toys. Our sustainable prototypes are slightly lighter than current figures. We still have to work on that. The children shouldn’t notice any difference if possible,” she says. In another area, on the other hand, we have already made a step forward. Since last year, many of the larger and smaller Schleich playsets have been delivered without a plastic window. This hardly bothers customers, but saves a few tons of plastic every year.