Shopping for toys for children should be a joyful activity, anticipating the hours of fun the child will get from a much desired set of bricks, a toy truck, doll or board game.
But, with over 90 per cent of the toys on the Irish market made from virgin plastic (which is itself made from petroleum), eco-conscious shoppers can struggle to find alternatives that satisfy their environmental concerns, whilst also meeting the expectations of little ones.
When Sharon Kielthy’s daughter was about to turn four, she went shopping for a birthday present, hoping to find a European made plastic-free toy, but she left the store without a gift.
A made-in-China toy made from wood, bio-plastics or recycled plastics is actually better than a made-in-Europe virgin plastic toy
It set Kielthy thinking about other parents’ search for sustainably made toys and in 2019, having working for 10 years as a management consultant, she quit her job and set up Jiminy, Ireland’s first online eco toy store.
Named after Jiminy Cricket, the conscience of the fictional wooden puppet Pinocchio, the store now sells about 750 sustainably made toys.
“You can’t expect people to do better if better isn’t on the shelf. Ninety per cent of toys are made from virgin plastic and shipped here from China,” says Kielthy. According to her own calculations, the carbon footprint of all the toys purchased in Ireland for one year is equivalent to cutting down three and a half million trees.
The toys sold on Jiminy aren’t just made from wood; many are made from recycled plastics or bio-plastics, cotton or cardboard.
Jiminy stocks everything from bath toys for babies made from 100 per cent rubber, to stacking blocks made from bio-plastics to organic cotton empathy dolls to wooden spinning tops which draw a picture while they spin. There are also Swiss-made Geomag magnetic sets made from 100 per cent recycled plastic, cardboard shadow puppet theatre sets, and certified organic face paints.
Kielthy has travelled (by ferry and train) to the London Toy Fair every year since 2019. “With a big smile on my face, I’ve asked every exhibitor for sustainably made toys. In 2019, only five out of 220 had anything to show me but by 2022, about 20 exhibitors had something,” she says.
There’s a long list of product criteria on her website, from suitable for vegans to a toy’s energy rating to use of compostable packaging. She’s keen to stress that eco-toys don’t always have to be costly. “It doesn’t have to be a really expensive hand carved wooden toy to be sustainable; you can have an injection-moulded, mass produced Fisher Price cash register that is made from recycled plastic, which makes it sustainable.”
The most popular toys currently for sale at Jiminy include bouncy wooden balance boards, Stabilo solid paint pencils, giant bubbles, Bioblo multicoloured stacking blocks and Rubens Barn empathy dolls (with a tree responsibly planted in each doll’s name).
Kielthy says that 90 per cent of the carbon footprint of the toy comes from the materials it is made from, rather than from transportation costs. “So, a made-in-China toy made from wood, bio-plastics or recycled plastics is actually better than a made-in-Europe virgin plastic toy,” she explains.
She also argues that it’s not a case of transforming the toy manufacturing process, but rather the substances that are used to make the toys. “We can work with machines, processes and people who are already there, we just have to change the material.”
The Danish family-owned maker of Lego – one of the world’s most played with toys – is one of the few large toy manufacturers that has committed to sustainability. The company has pledged to make all their Lego bricks from recycled plastic by 2030.
The idea is that if you reduce the amount of toys bought for a child, you also reduce the amount of waste created by toys
In the United States, Lego currently offers a recycling system called Replay, where people can donate their no-longer-used Lego for redistribution to children who don’t have Lego. Hasbro UK also has a take-back policy for their branded toys which, when returned, are used to make park benches.
Kielthy sits on the sustainability committee of The (American) Toy Association alongside representatives from the world’s biggest toy manufacturers – Mattel, Hasbro, Disney and Lego. “I feel like I’m Greenpeace on the board of Shell,” she jokes.
But more seriously, she says that she believes these massive corporations are keeping a close eye on EU carbon tax legislation. “Europe is leading the world on sustainability. These toy manufacturers don’t want to make two types of Barbie dolls for example, so they’ll watch what happens so that what they make will be compliant with EU legislation,” she says.
Large retailers in the US and Europe are also carefully tracking legal cut off points for using various packaging materials for toys. But Kielthy would like toy shops to go further and stock more sustainably produced toys. “When I first started my business, I said that I’d like toy stores like Smyths to have a plastic free aisle. That hasn’t happened yet and when I searched their website recently, I only found 15 sustainably produced toys – 11 products made from bioplastics, three made from recycled materials and one made from organic cotton. So massive change is still needed in the toy industry,” she says.
Back in 2019, Kielthy also approached the Late Late Toy Show, asking them to have an eco-toy slot on their show. “It was the Greta Thunberg year – just before the pandemic – so they went ahead and had a slot on second hand toys, books about nature and sustainable toys,” says Kielthy. The toys featured on this year’s Late Late Toy Show included a cardboard version of Barbie’s Dream House, and a cardboard construction kit for the Croke Park stadium in Dublin.
Another option for eco-conscious shoppers this Christmas is to gift a child with membership of a toy sharing club. Jenel Sanders set up the Clever Tots Toy Club (clevertots.ie) in September 2021, having been a member of a toy club when her son was a baby while she and her husband were living in Dubai.
Aimed at children aged between three months and three years, the club sends out a toy box with four age-appropriate toys to members’ homes as the previous four toys are collected, cleaned and redistributed for use by other children in the club.
The attraction of toy clubs for some people is that it saves timing shopping for age-appropriate toys. “Others are drawn to the idea of toys being reused and re-loved rather than thrown out, and some people are happy to have fewer toys because they don’t want to clutter their homes,” Sanders says. Some grandparents take out membership so that they can have some toys in their homes when their grandchildren visit.
The Clever Tots Toy Club has everything from play gyms to rattles and rainmakers, shape sorters and puzzles. All the toys are made from wood or recycled plastic, and if your child becomes attached to a particular toy, you can buy it at a discounted rate. Membership costs €39.99 per month with discounts for three, six or 12 month membership. “The idea is that if you reduce the amount of toys bought for a child, you also reduce the amount of waste created by toys,” says Sanders.
Dlulu Kaloo is another online store offering wooden toys for sale or rent. Run by Vicky Noble, it has a wide range of wooden toys, including some handmade pieces. And, if you decide to buy a toy you’ve rented, the rental fee is refunded in full or in part. “I create tailor made toy bundles for each child depending on their age, what they like and what skills the parents want to improve,” says Noble, who also sells her wooden toys at Killruddery Market in Bray and runs occasional play events at Rise at the Cove cafe in Greystones, Co Wicklow.
Popular sustainable toys
The wobble/balance board from das.Brett: Popular for teenagers and adults as well as children. The German toy, made from 11 layers of local beechwood, is strong enough to take a body weight of up to 120kg. €104.99 – €138.99 depending on the finish
Solid Paint pencils from Stabilo: These sturdy pencils can be used on multiple surfaces including blackboards, whiteboards, stones, jars and mirrors, as well as paper and cardboard. Plastic-free and made in Germany, they cost €15.49 for a set of six with a wooden sharpener
Classic wooden playthings: Catapults (with pom-poms) €12.99, bowling sets €39.99, skipping ropes €12.99/€16.99, yo-yos €8.99. Various suppliers and countries of origin
Empathy cloth dolls: Made from Rubens Barn, these mini dolls are made from 100 per cent organic cotton outer layers with 100 recycled stuffing. One tree is planted for every doll, with four characters to choose from. €27.99
Stacking blocks from Bilblo: These made-in-Europe freestyle stacking blocks are made from sawdust and recycled cups. Certified safe for babies, they suit children up to the age of 10. €49.99 for a 100 block set