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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Whither Recycled Plastic Toys

Air Date: Week of

Henry Sessions of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on why there aren't many toys made from recycled plastic and what manufacturers are doing to improve the state of the art.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Ah, yes. The holidays. Friends, relatives, wonderful gatherings, and for children's gifts, toys, toys, and more toys. Now there are some folks who have the time to make toys, or buy them from artisans who craft them from wood and cotton and other materials that can be recycled or renewed. But the bulk of us buy toys which our kids see advertised on television. And these are made with brand new plastic, from Nintendo control decks to Barbie dolls. And when they break they're tossed out, never to be used again.

Well, some toymakers have become concerned about using all that virgin plastic, and are seeking ways to use recycled resins in their goods. Henry Sessions of Oregon Public Broadcasting has our story.

VOICE OF CHILD: And we have a little sink here, and it says "cold" or "hot", and...

SESSIONS: Any six year old can tell you there's a lot of plastic in a kid's playroom. Six-year old Megan Barnes of Portland says her favorite toy is a play oven she got for her fourth birthday.

SESSIONS: What's this thing made out of?
BARNES: It's made out of plastic, and sort of it looks like glass, but it's really plastic, white plastic.

SESSIONS: Megan's rollerskates, her doll houses, her dolls and toy cars are all made of plastic. American toy manufacturers use up 800 million pounds of plastic a year - one and a half percent of all the plastic used in the country.

A trip to a few Portland toy stores suggests that recycled plastic doesn't seem to be making it into the toy mix.

SESSIONS: Do you carry recycled plastic toys?
VOICE OF TOY STORE CLERK: I honestly don't know ... (laughs)
SESSIONS: Have you ever heard of any recycled plastic toys?
CLERK: No. I'm just an employee here.
SESSIONS: Do you have any recycled plastic toys?
CLERK: I don't know, but I could get the manager, and he could answer that for you.

SESSIONS: The manager didn't know either. Karen Lettenman, the buyer at Finnegans, a bustling toy store in downtown Portland, says she'd love to carry recycled plastic toys - if she could find any.

LETTENMAN: Lately I've seen one or two mentions of toys, but I haven't found any yet. No salesman has brought any to me yet, and I haven't been able to find them yet.

SESSIONS: That's because there's little to find. Toy companies have long used recycled plastic for interior parts of toys, the undercarriage of a toy car for example. But toy companies have been reluctant to use recycled plastic where consumers can see it. With good reason. Linda Howe is vice president of a Portland company called Molded Container Corporation, a small plastics manufacturer whose main products are yogurt cups and margarine tubs. The company has recently begun stamping out yoyos, flying discs, and sand pails made of 100 percent recycled plastic. The problem is, the company receives a multi-colored mixture of recycled milk jugs and discarded plastic from other manufacturers. Howe says the technology for recycling this plastic is still primitive. So all the company's toys come out black.

HOWE: As long as we have to make the recycled black, there's gonna be the resistance to that product replacing the virgin material. To take something that's a neon pink and try to sell it on the idea making it out of recycled material, it's probably going to be a pretty hard sell at this point, until there's better sorting and different sorting, and more recycled material available.

SESSIONS: You won't find the company's yoyos in any toy store. Molded Container sells the toys to garbage and recycling companies and municipalities, who in turn distribute them to their customers to promote recycling. Aesthetically, the black beach buckets and yoyos can't measure up to the slick neon products made out of virgin plastic, but as Howe's colleague at Molded Container, John Normandon, demonstrates, they work just as well.

NORMANDON: Yeah, it goes up and down, just like it's supposed to. I did hurt myself once with a yoyo, so I have to watch out for that.

SESSIONS: Howe says the company is working on ways to make its recycled products more attractive to consumers. What could make recycled plastic more attractive to big toy companies is that it's cheap, often costing less than virgin plastic. And as consumers get better and better at cleaning, separating, and recycling their plastic items, and as more consumers get into the act, it'll just get cheaper. Jerry Powell is editor of Resource Recycling Magazine, a trade magazine for the recycling industry.

POWELL: No one who makes recycled plastic toys would step forward if they didn't think that the recycling supply is there. Americans have proven that they will set out the materials. Now American industry has to prove that it will use the materials.

SESSIONS: Some big toy companies have begun using more recycled materials in their packaging. But spokesmen at two of the biggest companies, Hasbro and Lego, say until the recycled plastics become more attractive, they probably won't start using them on a widespread basis. Jerry Powell says the technology to turn recyclables into a quality raw material that can be colored is being developed and should be available on a large scale in a few years. Until then he says it'll be up to small companies like Molded Container to prove there's profit in recycled plastics.

For Living on Earth, this is Henry Sessions in Portland.



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