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Culture

The Dubious Sustainability of Eco Barbies

She’s made of (recycled) plastic. Is that fantastic?

Barbie cooking the earth.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Mattel, KidKraft

Renewable Energy Engineer Barbie has bright blue eyes, a bouncy blonde ponytail that fits neatly beneath her hard hat, and a solar panel that clicks into her plastic hand. Her pink shirt and safety vest are certified CarbonNeutral. Her job is to “reduce the use of fossil fuels and improve energy use,” according to the back of her FSC-certified, 100% recycled cardboard box.

The Barbie is also — in keeping with the four-doll “2022 Career of the Year: Eco-Leadership Team” set she’s a part of — made of “recycled plastic” (except, an asterisk notes, for her head and her hair). You’ve got to wonder what her colleague, Environmental Advocate Barbie, would think of that, though. Fossil fuel companies and major plastic polluters like Coca-Cola have honed in on using and endorsing “recycled plastics,” a material that activists say is a giveaway of greenwashing because it can be highly energy intensive (one type of plastic recycling emits “more greenhouse gases than fossil fuel-fired power plants,” the National Resources Defense Council says), gives the illusion that plastic is more recyclable than it is, and frequently needs to be combined with virgin plastic, anyway.

Poke around Mattel’s recent press releases and website, and you’ll notice a trend. Mega Bloks’ Build & Learn Eco House is “made from … a minimum of 56% plant-based materials” and has added a “Build & Learn Eco House” and the “Grow & Protect Farm” to its line. There is a Matchbox Tesla Roadster (made from 99% recycled materials) and a Recycling Truck (made from “80% ISCC-certified bio-circular plastic”). UNO Cards are now recyclable (they weren’t before?). You can also send old Barbies back to the company to be recycled and buy Barbie Loves the Ocean and Dr. Jane Goodall dolls made from recycled plastic as replacements. The release of each new “sustainable” toy is a further occasion for Mattel to reference its ambition of using “100% recycled, recyclable, or bio-based plastic materials in all its products and packaging by 2030.”

That's a laudable ambition. Yet of all of Mattel’s countless number of toys, only 33 use recycled plastics of some kind right now. And even the few certified as carbon neutral seem to have attained the designation from carbon offsets the company purchased to preserve forests in British Columbia, although, as Bloomberg reports, the auditor general of the Canadian province “questioned the validity” of such offsets back in 2013. The offsets are also very cheap — Bloomberg estimated they cost about $3,000 for one entire product line.

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  • Plastic toys are ubiquitous: Children in Western nations are estimated to own an average of about 40 pounds of plastic toys, with some 90% of the toys available on the market being made out of plastic. “The toy industry uses 40 tons of plastic for every $1 million in revenues,” The World Counts reports, “and is the most plastic-intensive industry in the world.” But an estimated 80% of toys ultimately end up in landfills, incinerators, or the ocean.

    Consumers — and particularly Millennial parents — are aware of the plastic crisis and might feel buyer’s remorse when coming home with yet another landfill-destined doll. “Parents want to know that the products they buy will not harm the environment,” The Toy Association, a trade group, said following a 2019 report. “Offering a toy that is biodegradable or an initiative that encourages toy sharing will appeal to today’s environmentally-conscious consumers.” Another marketing survey concluded that wooden toys — which, anecdotally speaking, are all over my friends’ baby registries and momfluencer feeds — are expected to grow to a $34 billion business by 2031, up from $24.5 billion in 2022.

    But plastic toys have dominated for decades both because they’re cheap and easy to make and also, historically, because of their implicit hygiene: They’re easy to clean, durable, and hand-me-downable, without the ick factor of dirty stuffed animals. Their forms can also be more intricate than wood, their colors more eye-catching, and their weight less likely to injure a tiny toe. Plastic is increasingly viewed by modern parents as a potential health risk, though, thanks to headlines about the dangers of microplastics. “Some children are breathing in up to 7,000 microplastic particles a day,” one terrifying study found.

    As the world’s second-biggest toy company, Mattel didn’t get where it is today by ignoring the writing on the wall. “When our toys connect to what’s happening in the world, you see significant growth in the company,” Richard Dickson, Mattel’s chief operating officer, told The New Yorker recently. The comment was made in reference to the progressive professions of Barbie dolls (before she was a Renewable Energy Engineer, Barbie had stints as a Robotics Engineer, Music Producer, and Judge), but “what’s happening in the world” also encompasses global plastics treaties, heightened awareness about greenwashing, and the health concerns of regularly sticking plastic toys in your mouth for three or more years. Mattel has quietly worked to establish its environmental and sustainable credibility before the inevitable plastic toy backlash begins in earnest.

    Heading off parental ire is simply good business. But if Mattel anticipated the social and cultural empowerment of women with an astronaut Barbie that predated the actual moon landing and a Dreamhouse before most single women could get a mortgage, it also seems to be making moves that precede a sea change in the toy industry — away from virgin fossil fuel products to ones that at least look good on the packaging.

    It’s easy to take a cynical view of this. The best outcome, of course, would be the mass realization that American children probably don’t need 40 pounds of toys, although as any parent knows, that’s easier said than done. But the unfortunate truth of the anti-plastic movement is that getting rid of plastic entirely is a near-impossible goal at this juncture: Without a major innovation, the world simply doesn’t have the resources to replace everything that is plastic with an eco- and socially-friendly alternative, and the material is indispensable in many industries, like health care. Though there are all sorts of ideas circulating for a replacement — from algae to mushrooms to milk — the future of plastic is likely something we haven’t fathomed yet. The future of plastic toys, perhaps, is too. For the time being, anyway, that means Barbie is here to stay.

    I don’t doubt, though, that when the tide one day begins to turn on using “recycled plastics” in toys, Mattel will be a step ahead, then, too. I can see it now: Biopolymer Designer Barbie will come with a white lab coat, plastic goggles, and a beaker filled with algae that snaps into her perfect, carbon-offset, sustainably upcycled hand.

    Read more about plastics:

    I Tried To Find a Sustainable Litter Bag and It Broke Me

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    Jeva Lange

    Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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