What does it take to make a toy out of bio-based or biodegradable materials? / talks with biopolymers expert Harald Käb
Major brands such as Lego or Mattel are setting ambitious sustainability goals and looking for alternative materials to those based on fossil sources. But more and more smaller companies are also bringing toys made of bio-based or recycled plastics onto the market.

What challenges does the use of biopolymers pose for manufacturers of children’s toys? Bioplastics expert Harald Käb spoke with on the topic.

PIE: Whether bio-based and biodegradable – which bioplastics are suitable for children’s toys?

Harald Käb: Except in the area of safety – read: ingestion hazard – there are few specific regulations for toys. The EU Toy Safety Directive stipulates which requirements the material must meet and how the toy must be constructed. As far as chemical safety is concerned, the materials are primarily tested according to REACH and the DIN EN 71 standard. Many bio-based plastics can meet these specifications. Variations in quality may occur when using recycled material. This makes passing the tests more difficult.

What is driving the issue of bioplastics, toy manufacturers who want to minimise carbon emissions or consumer demand?

Käb: There is hardly any reliable information on this. One can therefore only make assumptions. What is certain is that large companies today are setting ambitious climate targets. The toy industry is very ‘plastics intensive’. Therefore, it cannot achieve its climate goals if it ‘only’ switches to renewable energies.

Consumers, on the other hand, are often unaware that materials and production processes are responsible for a total of around half of the climate gas emissions. However, many people can relate to terms like ‘renewable raw materials’, ‘bio-based’, or ‘recycled’. These buzzwords have a positive ring. Marketing makes use of these connotations.

What quantities are we talking about?

Käb: As far as I know, there are also no official statistics on the consumption of plastics in the toy sector. It is roughly estimated that between 3 and 4 mn t of plastics are consumed worldwide every year for the production of toys. About one-fifth of this amount is processed in the EU. Polyolefins and polystyrene are often used, as is PET and PVC, as well as ABS or polyamides.

The higher the quality of the toy, the more durable and powerful the plastics used. Some toys are used for decades and even inherited or resold. In this way, toys made of bioplastics could even serve as temporary carbon storage.

Are there limitations in terms of colour brilliance or durability when using bioplastics?

Käb: No, at least not often and not to any relevant extent. So-called drop-in solutions are primarily used. Take bio-based polyethylene, for example. It is identical to fossil-based PE from a technical perspective. PLA can also do all kinds of things – from soft fibres to long-lasting compounds. As far as colour brilliance is concerned, yes, eco colours are usually a little more subtle and less flashy. But marketing can also play this to their advantage.

On the topic of material cycles, what are the preferred disposal methods for toys made of bioplastics?

Käb: Toys are not subject to any special regulations. In Germany, for example, they usually end up in the residual waste bin after use and are then incinerated. It would be better if they ended up at the flea market or in a repair shop. The longer a toy is in use, the more ecologically sustainable it is.

However, there are already return offers from some manufacturers. Start-ups from the sector have begun to help here. Closed-loop recycling is probably rarely feasible or sensible. Recycling by polymer type via the recycling bin would probably be more efficient.

Related: Global bioplastics production expands after pandemic

“bioTOY” conference
For the third time since 2019, the international toy industry and manufacturers of bio-based or recycled plastics are meeting at the bioTOY conference in Nuremberg, Germany, on 21-22 March 2023. Both industries are presenting their ideas and progress in the production and application of more sustainable products. Beyond this, political initiatives and general conditions are being discussed. Further information can be found at

Personal details: Harald Käb
Harald Käb, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, and has helped build and lead the European Bioplastics industry association as executive chairman of the board. Since founding narocon- Innovation Consulting in 1997, he has been advising producers and users as well as government institutions on the use of bio-based and recycled plastics. Together with Michael Thielen, editor of Bioplastics Magazine, he is the co-organiser of the bioTOY conference.
22.03.2023 [252439-0]
Published on 22.03.2023

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