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The scary big picture of popular kids toys

This eye-opening list of toy consumption  facts, quotes, and infographics will make it dang near impossible to buy plastic toys ever again. But you can live with that. Actually, you’ll live better - and so will your kids!

The holiday season accounts for nearly 25% of annual retail sales. During this time, ad spending skyrockets as  Black Friday mania sweeps over the world. With so much bombardment from the media, and subsequent anticipation from our kids, it's hard to fight against the tide of unsustainable gift giving. But fight we must! And no less than as though our future depended on it because, quite literally, it does.


"The best things in life are free, but we've found a way of selling them to you."

- George Monbiot

Put differently, the best things in life aren’t things.


’’Marketing professionals cross-reference, cross-market, and cross-pollinate products and entertainment. By intentionally blurring the distinctions between entertainment, products, school curricula, and advertisements, marketers readily capitalize on young children’s limited ability to differentiate between them...It’s brilliant marketing, and it works. The only problem is that it works against parents, children, and the environment.’’

-Judith Rubin /

We’ve all found ourselves standing helpless at some touchpoint along this marketing funnel. It’s so deeply ingrained in our culture that it seems near impossible to remain outside its curated web. But really all it takes is a little creativity and some DIY grit.


''Contemporary holiday spending is neither unique nor excessive compared to that of the past century."

-Joel Waldfogel

Great! We didn’t invent the problem. That doesn’t mean we can’t be the ones to solve it.

It's easy to get caught up in oversimplified, hyperbolic analyses of the global inequality problem. Or to walk away thinking, I don’t understand enough about this and I can’t really do anything to change it.  But hold on just a minute. You don’t have to be Thomas Picketty to have an opinion on economic inequality, or to at least care about it.  Collective awareness of a problem is a critical first step in solving it.  


75% of plastic toys are made in South East Asian sweatshops, where employees, many of whom are adolescents, are overworked and underpaid. According to China Labor Watch, the average toy factory worker earns less than minimum wage or about 0.02¢ per toy.


"In the long run men inevitably  become victims of their wealth, they adapt their lives and habits to their money, not their money to their lives. It preoccupies their thoughts, creates artificial needs and draws a curtain between them and the world."


- Herbert Croly

We’re not talking pretty batik curtains made at fair trade wages.

Minimalism, Montessori, frugality, eco-consciousness—it doesn't really matter how you label it or what drives you there. Bottom line: excessive toy consumption, like excessive consumption of anything, is detrimental to children's well-being. The question is what qualifies as ‘excessive’? This usually gets determined by social norms rather than a careful analysis of what behooves us. In other words, just because everyone is doing it, doesn’t mean it’s not crazy.


"Maybe the greatest gift we can give this year to those we love the most, is our undivided and focused attention."

- joshua becker /

In this writer’s humble opinion, it’s also the greatest gift we can give to ourselves.


Decision fatigue is the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making.

Decision fatigue is the reason Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg purposely pared down their wardrobes to one or two outfits. It's also the reason why kids whose bedrooms are filled with heaps of toys will whine 'I'm boooored', instead of actually playing with any of them. They're underwhelmed by what’s on offer and overwhelmed by choice.


"The little child’s need for order is one of the most powerful incentives to dominate his early life... a favorable environment ...will encourage the flowering of a child's natural gifts. All that is needed is to remove the obstacles."

- Maria Montessori

Italian physicist Maria Montessori was among the first modern educators to recognize the heavy influence that physical environment bears on a child’s ability to learn.  Check out Instagram feeds such as #ourmontesstory#ourmontessorilife or #montessorionmars for inspiration on how to organize your children's play space to keep them focused and happy. Think of it as Marie Kondo for kids.



"For every second that passes, there are 2 Barbie dolls that are sold with a target age group being 3-12 year old girls. This accounts for $3 billion of annual sales."

- Brandon Gaille

That's 63,072,000 Barbies a year! All that fuss for a plastic toy doll that's linked to distorting young girls’ body images and stifling their career ambitions?


Many of our electronic gadgets contain 'conflict minerals' that are mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo where they are often used to fund local warlords.

Technically a smartphone isn't a toy, but considering that the average 10 year old already owns one, we felt it qualified to be included in this list.

What are conflict minerals?

  • Tantalum: Used in capacitors for text messaging

  • Tin: Used to create circuit boards

  • Tungsten: Used as a conductor

Happy Meal figurines, Pez dispensers, plastic snowball makers (really, just let kids use their hands). These unfortunate toys are amusing for a second at best, but end up in a landfill forever.


Plastic toys account for 90% of the market.

In 2016 that  market was valued at 26.5 billion dollars in the United States alone. Yikes!


"Only 1% of materials in the consumer economy remain in use 6 months after sale."

- Annie Leonard

It's confounding just to think that 99% of our purchases become junk within 6 months, but the majority of plastic toys will break long before.


Extracting, manufacturing and transporting the oil that is used to make plastic takes a tremendous toll on the air we breathe, the water in our oceans, and the wildlife living around drilling sites.

And that’s before you consider the collective price we pay for disposing of plastic. For example, you may already know that almost all the plastic ever made still exists today, much of it in landfills, but did you also know that a huge portion of discarded plastic has formed a floating mass in the Pacific Ocean estimated at twice the size of the state of Texas, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?


A plastic toy will travel an average of 50,000 km during its product lifecycle to North American consumers, generating 26,000 pounds of CO2.

That’s 1.31 times the Earth's circumference!


According to EWG (Environmental Working Group), the toxicity of certain chemicals used to produce plastic is not fully understood or adequately tested.  Some are patently harmful, such as BPA and PVC. Others aren't necessarily safe, rather, they haven't been proven to be unsafe.

That last bit is crucial to understand. Don’t assume that the plastic manufacturing industry will go out of their way to prioritize public health over private profits.


The majority of plastic toys are made cheaply, from various sources of plastic, which need to be separated before they can be recycled. Even then, many of the most commonly used plastics aren't accepted by recycling facilities.

Too many of us are still under the false impression that dragging all our plastic bottles to the recycling bin will save us from the wrath of the plastic pollution gods. Not true.

The Monstrous Pollution of Plastic Toys
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Article references:
Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays, By Joel Waldfogel

"The scientific reason why Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg wear the same outfit every day". Business Insider. Retrieved 2017-03-28.

Metro Vancouver: Life of toy car at Christmas

C02 usage calculator

C02 equivalents calculator

Avg gas mileage

Average American driving time:

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

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