From Biomass to Plastic Toys

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The environmental and safety issues surrounding conventional plastics are growing, particularly where toys are concerned. Bioplastics are becoming an interesting alternative to traditional plastics, with some big names hoping to enter the bioplastics toy arena – but what do we know about this bio-alternative?

Plastic is ideal for making toys – its inexpensive, robust and moldable. But there are concerns over the effects additives added to the plastics could have on the younger generation, particularly when plastic toys are put in the mouth. The most well-known additive is bisphenol A or BPA, an endocrine disruptor that has been linked to developmental and birth defects among other health issues.

It is banned in many products, but evidence suggests other additives are also endocrine disruptors. The problem is that many different chemicals are added to plastics, and there is limited scientific understanding of their toxicity and effects on human health.

This is important where toys are concerned as children are more susceptible to the toxic effect of chemicals – and inevitably the toy will find its way into their mouth.

We know that chemical toxicity at a very early stage of life can reprogram development and make the kids more susceptible to disease later in life.

Martin Wagner, Toxicologist, The Norwegian University of Science and Technology

So rather than make toys from plastics derived from non-renewable petrochemicals, an increasing number of plastics are being made from biomass. The bioplastic industry is booming and is expected to grow by 20% over the next five years – unsurprising when manufacturers like LEGO intend to replace all the plastic in their toys with a sustainable alternative by 2015. The Denmark-based brick specialist has invested €130 million in a sustainable materials center which is developing alternatives to oil-based plastics. The move will reduce the company’s carbon footprint and reliance on fossil fuel resource, they say.

Evidence suggests that consumers like bioplastic toys; Klaus Menrad, a renewable resources expert at the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Science in Germany, and his colleagues asked over 500 parents for their thoughts on a set of bioplastic sand toys. While price was the most important factor governing whether the parents liked them, two-thirds were prepared to pay a limited price premium for bioplastic toys.

Parents are interested in bioplastic toys, explains Menrad but their expectations are high.

They expect that bio-based plastic should be 100% bio-based.

Klaus Menrad, Renewable Resources Expert, The Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Science

They also want it to be made locally and from biomass from Europe. And, they ideally want the biomass to be an organic, non-genetically modified, non-food crop - quite common expectations when it comes to bio-based products.

He says that people transfer what they know about sustainable food – and sometimes bioenergy – production to bioplastic. “The problem is they also put a lot of emphasis on price,” he adds. And price is often what dictates what the consumer buys.

However, many consumers don’t really understand bioplastics – particularly how to dispose of them research suggests. Many parents also believe that bioplastics are less toxic than conventional plastics. They are interested in them because, “they see them as more healthy for my child,” suggests Menrad.

Despite the obvious benefits of bioplastics, there are still some negatives associated with them. Wagner says that it is a misconception to assume bioplastics are safer. The majority of health concerns about plastics are linked to plastic additives or plasticisers, chemicals added to give polymers desirable properties, like flexibility and durability.

There are very few polymers that come with little added chemicals because they simply don't work without added chemicals. They are needed for bio-based plastics and conventional plastics.

Martin Wagner

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