Tracing a Devastating Path: A Toy’s Story.

By Cheri-Lynn McCabe and Sandra Bartram


The extreme air pollution in Beijing, China was among the leading environmental news stories for the week of January 20, 2015. The smog-causing small particulate matter, PM2.5, reached twenty times the allowable World Health Organization limit as reported in the online edition of the Guardian. Although the Chinese government had committed to reducing PM2.5 by 2015, the current data suggests that efforts to date have been, for the most part, largely ineffective. These particles are small enough to lodge in the respiratory tract causing an increase in health-related respiratory conditions. One of the major contributors of PM2.5 is coal-fired factories that are supported by the world’s over-consumption of material goods.

Developing nations such as China do not employ the same labour law practices, standards of pollution control, building codes or safety and health guidelines for their workers and businesses as do their Western counterparts. It is, in part, because of lax environmental codes that corporations often relocate their operations to developing countries to maximize profits. Often they do not want to take moral or financial responsibility for any environmental damage they cause. In this context, the concepts of both personal and corporate responsibility are sorely in need of re-evaluation. While North American and European standards have had an increasingly positive effect on the safety of Chinese products sold within their borders, they have had little influence on the levels of environmental damage created within the country where these goods are manufactured. Are the developing countries solely responsible for solving these seemingly local problems that are not only contributing to air pollution, but to water and soil contamination?

Using a permaculture approach based on interconnections and observations, let us consider the life cycle of a small non-essential item such as a child’s plastic toy available at any big-box store. This non-essential item should have a very low ecological impact, but unfortunately, the energy and environmental costs associated with extraction of base materials, manufacturing, transportation and disposal are astronomical.

The energy required for the extraction and refining of hydrocarbons in the form of crude oil necessary as a base in hard plastic manufacturing is becoming increasingly more expensive and has a higher environmental impact than ever before. In addition, there is an energy cost associated with transporting the raw materials and subsequently, with the finished toy’s complex logistical global and domestic distribution. Many toys are marketed in expensive plastic and cardboard packaging, the production and transportation of which compounds energy costs, its disposal contributing needlessly to waste accumulation in landfills. The amount of energy required to maintain multiple big-box stores, often within close proximity to each other, seems ludicrous. In addition, big-box stores are frequently located in suburbia necessitating the use of automobiles by shoppers. Another consideration is the huge area of land paved over to accommodate stores and parking lots. Could this land be put to more intelligent use?

Many consumers have very little hesitation in discarding cheaply made toys due to deeply embedded culturally-integrated notions and expectations about the relationship between the price of an item and its longevity. That is, people actually expect the toy to break because it costs so little and is so easily disposed of and replaced. They rarely recognize the true cost of what they are buying. Once the toy has reached its limited usefulness, it inevitably ends up in landfills. The lightweight plastic often lands in streams and storm drains and eventually washes out to sea. Gyros in the Pacific Ocean are forming two large plastic islands the size of the state of Texas that are growing annually. Chris Jordan’s informative short documentary about Midway Island two thousand miles from the nearest mainland bears silent witness to this appalling tragedy.

The energy we might expend in battling for change against well-entrenched bureaucracies may be put to better use. In his YouTube clip, “HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD WITH PERMACULTURE”, David Holmgren suggests that an effective strategy is to create, in our own backyards, the type world we do want and to allow its influence to resonate outward. In taking this advice to heart we are creating a forum for people to present easily replicated ideas to reduce overconsumption of non-essential plastic items. Please feel free to add your own ideas to the following examples, and remember that collective action can create lasting solutions!

Example one: Instead of giving a child a plastic toy as a birthday or Christmas gift, consider giving the gift of time. Create a certificate or IOU redeemable for a special day such as a trip to the beach and a movie.

Example two: Pay for a lesson such as music, art, skating or dance. Offer to assist with the transportation to and from the lesson. Give the gift of a new experience!

Example three: Instead of the ubiquitous goodie bags given out at birthday parties, consider hiring a magician, clown or some other local talent. Explain your motivations, and take this opportunity to enlighten a new generation!



  1. Instead giving goodie bags at birthday parties you can also make a craft that will be useful or last a long time. One good example is to make t-shirts with fabric paint, or make bird feeders for the kids to take home. They get to have a great time making something and take home a wonderful keepsake! Great Article!

    1. Hi Kelsey. It is so wonderful when someone in the family reads our permaculture article and comments. It made me think of the birthday parties that you have had for your three girls and all the wonderful times we have had playing games and making crafts not using junky dollar store stuff. I have always admired your comittment to reducing cheap plastic toys and providing your children with durable wooden toys. I can’t wait to do an article on you for WASP ( Women Advancing Sustainable Permaculture). Another thing that I really love is when your mother-in-law gives your children a long-lasting perennial plant for their birthdays. The Northern Olive tree stands out in my memory as a very cool present. I was happy to see how your girls were so excited by this gift. Throughout the years as their food forest grows they will have beautiful memories of their Oma.

  2. When I was growing up my sisters and I had real tools geared for children. That was a long time ago, however, lol. When I started having kids several decades ago I found that “tools for kids” were all cheap plastic, and designed to break or fall apart within the year. Our oldest daughter loved those sand castle kits (like the one in the photo) but she went through them really fast. When our second daughter turned two we wanted to get her a set of tools, but didn’t want to go with the plastic flow. Everyone around us kept saying that the plastic toy tools were safer. We disagreed and got her a set of real tools (took some hunting, but we found them). She got a complete gardening set (rake, broom, bucket, and shovel) with wooden handles and steel heads. As well, my husband got her a mechanics set (hammer, screwdriver, crowbar, and wrench) all steel with heavy rubber grips. Not only did she hurt herself with them far less often than her older sister, but they were eventually handed down to the next child, and are still in use today. Whenever a younger child comes to visit the farm we have them on hand for them to use. With proper care we expect them to be around longer than us.

    1. Candes, your comment brought back a powerful memory. I have been gardening and interested in back-to-basics living ever since I can remember. In our old home movies I am trying to garden with adult-sized tools. Using an adult-sized rake is quite a challenge for a two year old. I have an embedded memory of being so frustrated with junky plastic stuff that did not actually work and broke easily. I would have lost interest had I not been so determined. As I grew, these tools became more manageable, and I spent a very happy childhood growing as many things as I could find seeds. (Not child labour just sheer happiness). Child-sized appropriate tools made to last is a fantastic idea, ones that can be passed down from generation to generation. Passing on knowledge and skills to a child is a fantastic gift. The biological wonder that transforms the seed with its special genetics into a source of food for both humans and animals, as well as a source of medicine, fibres and havens for insects and wildlife will be indispensible for a child’s future. Thank you so much for commenting on our article as the purpose is to create a forum for sharing ideas that collectively can apply a lasting solution for change.

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