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How to avoid the plastic toy trap this season

While plastic toys are ubiquitous - especially during the festive season when we’re wracking our brains for gift ideas - there are alternatives. We just need to think out of the plastic box, as Pedzi Gozo learns.

Old plastic doll
© Unsplash
Like other plastic products, plastic toys take hundreds of years to break down.

Plastic-free ecofriendly toys for the festive season would not be an obvious topic for me to weigh in on. With no children of my own and having nieces and nephews already (and remarkably) in their early teens, I am arguably not the best woman for the job. So I turned to two close friends with three young children between them for advice. And it proved to be quite the education. So, hold on to your rocking horses (and make sure they are wooden).

 “The toy industry,” according to mold makers, Richfields Plastics, “has been one of the most prolific plastic manufacturing industries over the past few years. With over millions of toys produced, along with a revenue of over billions of dollars (US) on a yearly basis, the toy industry has helped the plastic industry become one of the biggest and most prolific industries in the world.” Gasp!

This is especially concerning when we take into account that eight million tonnes of plastic leaks into the ocean from land each year. So, how do we make better choices? How do we ensure we don’t contribute to these alarming statistics, when it comes to choosing gifts for our children – the inheritors of the earth? It’s a tricky business, and not just because plastic toys are ubiquitous and affordable, but also in huge demand – by children themselves!

If we consider the oft touted “anti-plastic mantra” of refuse, reduce, reuse, we know that while refusal is the best option it may not always be possible, and a significant reduction might be more “real” for the conscious pragmatist. Either way, we need alternatives. Here are a few.

Make it an experience

If you really think about it, the gifts we remember most fondly from our childhood aren’t always the actual toy or material item itself. We remember how something made us feel. This association is usually about an experience, and gifts which offer feelings in spades are typically interactive and practical. Some examples are crafting materials, musical instruments, wooden blocks and puzzles, binoculars, a small tent or tee-pee, tickets to a concert or a show, and my personal favourite: a “love day” – a day where your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews can choose to do whatever activity they want to do (with you).

Wooden play letters
© Pexels
More than just objects, some gifts can create memories that will last for a lifetime.
Get crafty

But what if you can’t fully escape the allure of plastic toys? My friends’ children love them, as I did as a child, and you probably did too. Forty odd years ago my wonderful mother who was always ahead of her time, bought us hand-made craft dolls made of natural materials from time to time. I can see their artisanal beauty in retrospect, but all my sister and I really wanted was Barbie. So, of course, pester power prevailed and on Christmas morn, Barbie it was (or something else equally as “plastic”)! I fully understand. My mother wanted to make us happy.

Toddler playing with toys
© Pexels
Soft toys, wooden toys, board games, and books are some of the environmentally friendly toys to consider this festive season.
If you must, make sure it’s built to last

One of my friends (with young children) happens to be more eco-conscious than most. She explains that if she has to buy plastic toys she insists on quality plastic that lasts. Cheap plastic toys can last less than a month before breaking, only to be quickly discarded before ending up in landfill and remaining in the environment for hundreds - yes, hundreds - of years to come. Good quality plastic toys can be passed on to other children or even to following generations.

My friend’s three-year-old son, she tells me, is playing with matchbox cars her brother played with more than thirty years ago. Her brother now lives in Europe. Passing on toys has not just been great for the planet but it’s done double duty by bonding her family across miles and generations. It’s a beautiful thing.

The final piece of advice is: “buy secondhand toys in general but especially if you’re buying plastic”. Plastic is easy to clean and, if it’s secondhand and in good shape, you can be sure it’s good quality and will stay the course. That’s a smart take on reuse and it’s the responsible thing to do.

Two popular secondhand stores for children in the Western Cape are Merry Pop Ins in the city centre and Tatrum in Kenilworth. There are also a number of options for secondhand toys online. Or choose to refuse this festive season, by visiting: https://www.faithful-to-nature.co.za/natural-kids, for an excellent range of gifts for your young eco warrior.

And as for me, well now I know. And when you know better you do better.

Happy shopping. Happy holidays.       

Pedzi Gozo Photo
Pedzi Gozo, Executive Manager: Communications Unit

Only a healthy planet can deliver our desire for a good life for all, forever. It’s that simple. This is why I do what I do.

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