Go to any toy store and you can find the dominant presence of plastic in various hues and shapes. From dolls to building blocks, cricket bats for tiny tots to portable indoor slides, teething rings to bath toys, it is plastic all the way. It is almost as if a world without plastic would be one without toys.
Aggressive salespersons will assure you that the toys are made from a safe and non-toxic grade of plastic. But one has to take the sales pitch with a pinch of salt. In any case, most plastic toys are not labelled with the chemicals they contain, and it is difficult to ascertain whether a colourful toy is safe or will leach harmful chemicals, should an infant or child put it in his/her mouth.
A 2021 report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) found 25 per cent of children’s plastic toys containing harmful chemicals. The study noted that of the 419 chemicals found in hard, soft and foam plastic materials used in toys, 126 were potentially harmful to children’s health. These included 31 plasticisers, 18 flame retardants and eight fragrances. The study recommended “prioritising these substances for a phase out in toys and replacing them with safer alternatives.”
Even if a plastic toy is safe, that is, it is non-toxic, the other big ethical question is whether you should be encouraging the use of a material that is recognised universally as being intrinsically environment unfriendly. And where do the dolls and building bricks go when your child outgrows them? They inevitably end up in the garbage dump and finally in landfills.
But if you say no to plastic toys, are there any alternatives? Plenty, if you, as a parent, decide to look around or even make some yourselves. In fact, rural India itself has some interesting, eco-friendly alternatives that are amazing but sometimes need refining. Take the wooden top that spins on its axis, or the go-cart fashioned out of one of the most sustainable materials — bamboo. At the Nature Bazaar in Delhi, you can often find amazing alternative toys — rattles made of reed, filled with natural seeds that make an interesting sound. Or rag dolls of every size and colour entirely created from cloth scraps and woollen remnants, and fascinating stuffed animals and birds. These are all safe and washable. I remember an innovative sustainable ‘jungle safari’ that I bought for a child. It came in a cloth bag along with trees, different animals, a water body, rocks, all made with cotton and wool. Such toys can inspire children to let loose their imagination and pick up the art of storytelling.
So, next time you wish to buy your child a gift, here are a few suggestions. It would be better to go in for a wooden cart or wooden blocks, cardboard jigsaw puzzles, rubber balls, or even wooden chessboards or board games.
Today, even some manufacturers are vowing to design safe and environment-friendly toys. For instance, Lego has promised hundred per cent sustainability for its bricks by 2030. Till then, if you do have these or other building blocks lying around, it would be good to keep them safely and pass them on to another child if yours has outgrown them. This goes for other toys too. If every residential area built its own children’s toy library with donations, a much greener world would definitely await our children and us.
Unfortunately, in India we do not have stringent guidelines for children’s toys, unlike some other countries. Toy-related injuries are also common.
Here are some recommendations:
* Toys made of fabric should be labelled as flame resistant or flame retardant.
* Stuffed toys should be washable.
* Painted toys must use lead-free paint.
* Art materials like paint and crayons should be non-toxic.
Parents must supervise playtime for very young children and make sure that a toy isn’t too loud for the child. It has been found that the noise of some rattles, squeak toys and musical or electronic toys can be too loud and can damage hearing. It is important to also check toys regularly to see that they are in good shape as broken ones could have sharp edges and wooden ones could have splinters. These could hurt children.
So how do you shop for sustainable toys? There are some options that come up when you Google non-toxic Indian toy brands. Look for those that emphasise sustainability and safety. Though it is unfortunate that several companies do not list the dos and don’ts or the material they have used for manufacturing the toy.
However, the best thing to do when exploring playthings for children is to do extensive research, opt for the greenest solutions, talk to other parents and not be coerced into an unsafe buy. As children are precious and vulnerable, they need only the best that you can give. Remember, an important thumb rule that will always serve you well while making a purchase — when in doubt about a toy, cut it out from your shopping list.
The writer is a senior journalist who writes on environmental issues