Are bioplastic toys eco-friendly?

By Cheryl Hadland

This is actually a complex question, that needs breaking down. Firstly,  Bioplastic is a material that will last for hundreds of years, so not something that should ever be bought with the idea of throwing it away in a couple of years and certainly not after one use.  Secondly, you can’t throw bioplastic away in the recycling, because no one is recycling bioplastic at the moment, and if you do throw it in with the plastic recycling, it will ruin the whole batch.  So it can only be burnt or thrown in landfill at the end of its use – unless it can be repurposed.  So first response, is “no”, its not a sustainable material to make toys from, currently. 

Some companies are undoubtedly using bio-plastic as an eco product to increase their sales, and maybe even to increase the price, my opinion is that this is not ethical, in my opinion its “green-wash”.  When companies say products “Can be recycled” that is an “in theory” comment, mostly not born out in practice. No one that I know is separating bio-plastic waste  from oil based plastic in order to throw it away.  Do you have a bio-plastic recycling facility in your location?

However, lets look at this in more detail. What are bioplastics  made of, where and how?  Can it be recycled or reused, perhaps sent back to the manufacturers to re-use?

Bioplastic is not made of oil, which is good because as we know, oil is a finite resource, once its gone its gone, so its better not to use oil for anything that we don’t absolutely have to.  Plus when we burn any kind of plastic it produces carbon dioxide, which is  causing damaging climate change, so we don’t want to do that, however we can burn it more safely in a commercial incinerator that prevents the gas escape, so its not a total disaster.   Growing anything is good for oxygen production and absorbing carbon dioxide,  and that includes the products made into bioplastic, its just the making it into the bioplastic and what happens when we don’t want it any more that is the problem!  There are  better things to grow however than product for bioplastics, such as food, and more effective carbon dioxide absorbers like trees.

Bioplastics can be made from a large number of products such as sugar, corn, vegetable oil, recycled food waste, and also agricultural by-products, even plastic bottles and other containers.  They may not be 100% bioplastics.   So if you want to check the product you are thinking of buying then you need to find out what the bioplastic it is being made from.  I would try and avoid a bioplastic that is:

  • Made of food – that should be eaten not make into plastic.  (food waste is better)
  • Grown in areas that should be rain forest or trees – we shouldn’t be cutting down trees, they make more oxygen than sugar etc. plus they provide habitats for animals and insects.
  • Plants that have been doused in pesticides, herbicides, hormones, carcinogenics etc. that could be toxic if put into plastic that our children then handle and put in their mouths but may also be responsible for extinction of species

Plus do we trust the labelling – because if the manufacturer is touting bioplastic as the eco choice, when it is SO far from perfect, how can we believe the rest?

Some manufacturers do expand on their labelling on their website, for example Dantoy from Denmark say:

“Manufacture of bioplastics reduces carbon emissions. “ I would ask compared to what?  Do they mean they use less electricity to mould it than oil made plastic?  Do they have evidence for that?  Certainly not less carbon emissions than wooden or bamboo toys?

“Sugarcane is cultivated on controlled, pesticide-free plantations in central and southern Brazil”  SO pesticides, and rain forest damage, and food – 3 bad points.

“After they are used these products can be 100% recycled” – they can, but they aren’t, another bad claim.  Do Dantoy make ANY effort to get their products back at end of use to recycle or any advice on where to recycle them?  Not that I can see on their website, but I would be delighted if they could prove me wrong.  What is even worse is that they have used the circular economy style diagram on their website so it looks like they are engaged in circular economy (reusing of resources indefinitely), but they aren’t.  Looks like deliberate misinformation to me, there is no life cycle, this is make a product, and chuck it in landfill actually made to look like it’s a good thing, a really bad point and now I distrust the company.

“Sugarcane transported by train – more eco=friendly than lorries”- that depends on what the trains or lorries are being fuelled by surely, and how far are they going?  And what about the transfers from train station to factories?  And how do they get to Denmark and then to the UK?  How are they distributed in the UK – in diesel trucks perhaps?  Hydrogen trains and lorries are better, renewable electricity is better.  Maybe I’m nitpicking, but is this really a selling point for Dantoy?

“Toys are made from 90% bioplastic” – so what is the rest?  That bit is the bit that could compromise whether the product can be melted down and made into more toys, or not, but if Dantoy, and others really wanted to be eco sustainable, they would have a “return to manufacturer policy” so that they could ensure they are recycled at end of life, whether from breakage, or unwanted, they could “promote repairs and broken part replacement” so their lives could be extended,  they could make an effort to re-sell second hand or even hire toys.   That would be real circular economy.

The recycled cardboard boxes look good, just make sure the cardboard does go in the recycling and is recycled by your bin collectors, and that bit is OK.

Just out of interest, we can’t have toys made out of recycled plastic of any sort (bioplastic or oil based plastic)  because of the chemicals added during manufacture for colour, flexibility, strength etc. – unless manufacturers can access just one sort of plastic, maybe a particular bottle, that they know contains nothing that could be toxic.  But they could be made into fencing, outside furniture, crates, bags etc. that aren’t at risk of going in children’s mouths, although any plastic left in the environment will likely produce microplastics and wear and tear will put microplastics into our air, soil and water – it really would be better if we didn’t make plastic to use for anything but essential use because we don’t deal with it safely or effectively when we’ve finished with it – yet.  Should nurseries and parents buy plastic toys (whether bio or oil) – are they essential?  I would suggest not, but if you have them already, don’t throw them in any bin.

Im not a scientist, and I would be very happy if Dantoy or other manufacturers can prove me wrong so we can buy them for the children, but currently, no, our group of nurseries will not be buying any new Dantoy Bio-plastic toys.  On the banned list.   Happy to buy second hand/nearly new though –  to keep them from going in the bin and stop them being wasted.  They look lovely.

Posted in: Sustainability