A cartoon of a footprint made up of the repeating symbol CO2. The background is green.

What's the Carbon Footprint of the Toy Industry? (And does the number matter?)

This article is the scond in a series leading up to World Sustainable Toy Day 2023:
Towards a Carbon Neutral Toy Industry. Discussion prompts are at the bottom of the page, get together with your colleagues or friends and see what you think.
Download this blog and discussion questions.

 

Working out the carbon footprint of an industry, country or individual, is one way of figuring out its environmental impact. The carbon footprint acts as a proxy for fossil fuel use and gives us a way to compare across industries. Even though there is much environmental damage not taken into account when we only measure carbon (including water and air pollution, land use and modern slavery) it it a useful tool, especially as a first step towards sustainability.

So what’s the carbon footprint of the toy industry and is the number meaningful?  In this blog we’re talking about carbon foot printing and what it actually means for the toy industry. (If you’re into numbers, then the maths is at the bottom of the blog).

The toy industry creates 26 million tonnes of CO2 each year*

Ok. So what? To me 26 million tonnes is just a meaningless big number. If we compare it to other industries it seems small. The fashion industry has a carbon footprint of 282 billion tonnes from polyester production alone. But does that mean that we’re ok in the toy industry? That we don’t have to make any changes because we’re not as bad as other industries? Coming from the small country of NZ this is an argument we hear often - why should we change when other, bigger countries produce so much more carbon than us?

Firstly, this number is an underestimate. It only measures the carbon produced to make plastic for toys, and to transport the finished toys. It doesn’t take into account actually making the plastic into toys, warehouses, stores, offices, energy used for marketing, advertising, corporate travel or running toy fairs.

Secondly, just because we’re not the biggest sector in the world, does that mean we should wait for someone else to clean up their industry first? Solving the climate crisis needs all of us to make as much positive change as we can.

And most importantly because we sell to children it’s not the tonnes of carbon produced that is crucial, it’s the way we are teaching children to interact with the world. But before we get to that, if we were to offset the carbon from the toy industry, what would that take? Can we offset our way out of the problem?

To offset the CO2 produced by the toy industry we would need to plant mature trees covering an area the size of Portugal.

This shows how carbon offsetting won’t solve the climate crisis. Firstly, we can’t plant mature trees, and the saplings we plant won’t absorb significant amounts of carbon for many years. Secondly we can’t go back in time to plant trees so they are mature now. And of course we can’t plant an area the size of Portugal in trees  as we don’t have enough space.  Planting trees and restoring wild habitats is great, but it’s not a solution to fix the climate crisis. When trees die all the carbon they have absorbed is released back into the atmosphere. When we plant trees, we can’t guarantee that they will live for the hundreds or thousands of years we need them to in order to lock away carbon. Offsetting isn’t the answer: we need to drastically reduce the amount of plastic and CO2 used in the toy industry. 

We can’t carry on extracting and using fossil fuels and then ‘offsetting’ the carbon. Extraction of fossil fuels causes air and water pollution, cancer and other long term health conditions, biodiversity loss and oil spills. 

So if the carbon footprint of the toy industry isn’t the best measure of its environmental impact, what is?

Nearly 1% of global plastic production is used to make toys

Considering how small the toy industry is compared to other industries this is a shocking number. The toy industry is the most plastic intensive in the world; 90% of toys are made from plastic and virtually all of these are made from virgin petroleum based plastic. We’re using a resource made from a scarce non-renewable resource (oil) to make a material that will last for thousands of years (plastic) in order to make throwaway toys that are designed to not last. Kids lose interest in 25% of their toys after just one week. Should we be making these toys? Should we be using plastic to make these toys?

80% of toys end up in landfill, incinerators or the ocean

Which means we’re wasting valuable resources. The toy industry is based on a linear business model of ‘take, make, waste’ where resources (oil) is taken, the toy is made (make) and then it’s thrown out (waste). Studies on the longevity of toys often ask how long the toys stayed in the home and consider over 1 year to be a long life. If that’s the case then arguably 100% of toys end up in landfill, incinerators or the ocean. Even if toys are donated or passed on, it’s just a delay in the toys’ eventual trip to landfill. All toys, unless they are recycled, are destined to be chucked out. And toys are hard to recycle due to the multiple materials and toy safety standards. 

Toys are where children are first exposed to shopping, creating a culture of consumption that influences the rest of their lives. 

The most important reason why the carbon footprint of the toy industry is not the most important metric is that toys teach children how to interact with shopping and consumption. Toys are not the world’s biggest industry but they do create a culture of consumption and waste that spills over into other areas as kids grow up. As the first place where children are exposed to shopping and consumption, toys set the standard for how they interact with products and trains them to also want the latest thing.

The toy industry punches above its weight in terms of importance, and as such we have a responsibility to the kids who are our customers and the future of the planet in which they’ll live as adults.

Conclusion

Let’s aim for a carbon neutral toy industry but not solely through offsetting. Let’s reduce the amount of single-use disposable toys we produce and let’s create toys that kids still want to play with after a week, a month or better still a year. Let’s stop using virgin petroleum based plastic. Let’s teach kids about overconsumption, circular economy and how our actions impact on the environment and the people around us.

Discussion Questions:

  • How can we reduce the amount of plastic and CO2 produced by the toy industry?
  • Do you agree or disagree that the toy industry has a responsibility bigger than its size because kids are learning how to interact with shopping and consumption?
  • Do you think using carbon footprint is a good way of working out the environmental impact of the toy industry?

How Sustained Fun reduces its carbon footprint:

  • Design out waste at the beginning
  • The box size of our toys fits the produce exactly, reducing waste and carbon
  • Use sea freight not air freight
  • Use carbon neutral electricity from renewable resources
  • Use EV and hybrid vehicles
  • No plastic packaging
  • Makes reusable toys instead of disposable.

The Maths

Working out carbon footprints is complicated. We’ve done the maths based on information available because it hasn’t been done before, but we’re not data scientists. We’d be happy to hear from anyone who can refine these numbers

*25 million tonnes of carbon (produced to manufacture plastic for the toy industry)

Toys are a $90 billion industry

40 tonnes (40,000 kg) of plastic is used for every $1 million in revenue.

90,000,000,000/1,000,000 x 40,000 =3,600,000,000 kg of plastic (3.6 billion kg or 3.6 million tonnes)

6 kg of CO2 is produced for every 1 kg of plastic used.

3.6 million tonnes x 6 kg = 21.6 million tonnes CO2 


Plus transport of toys adds another 20% to the carbon footprint

21.6 million x 1.20 = 25.9 million tonnes

This is in the same ballpark as Jiminy Toys’ estimation of 24.3 million tonnes CO2 and 29.2 million tonnes including transport. I think it’s safe to say 26 million tonnes is an underestimate.


To offset the CO2 produced by the toy industry we would need to plant mature trees covering an area the size of Portugal.

To offset the carbon produced by the toy industry would take 1.1 billion trees

1 million trees takes up 20,000 acres

1.1 billion trees takes 22,000,000 acres = 89,030 square km

Portugal = 92,000 square km


Nearly 1% of global plastic production is used to make toys

Global plastic production is 460 million tonnes

3.6 million tonnes are used in the toy industry

3,600,000/460,000,000*100 = 0.8%

 

World Sustainable Toy Day 2023: Towards a More Sustainable Toy Industry will be held on 17th November 2023. 

 

References

https://blog.tentree.com/this-is-the-impact-of-1-million-trees/

https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/articles/creating-a-circular-economy-for-toys

https://ecochain.com/knowledge/danger-carbon-tunnel-vision/

https://www.oecd.org/environment/plastic-pollution-is-growing-relentlessly-as-waste-management-and-recycling-fall-short.htm

https://jiminy.ie/blogs/news/plastic-free-why

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