We teach them to flick off the lights when they leave the room. They’ve mastered the habit of turning off the tap while brushing their teeth. And they’re fluent in matters of separating the garbage, litterless lunches and eco-footprints.
But open the toy box, hit the birthday party circuit or stroll down the aisles of the nearest Toys R Us and the whole notion of raising greener kids seems to disappear in a cloud of noxious gas.
Sustainable living is what this generation is supposed to be about. So how come the staples of modern childhood include: loot bags laden with plastic tops that don’t spin and whistles that don’t blow; row upon row of plastic toys dwarfed by oversized packaging; and retailers who bombard kids with the message that you should never settle for one Bratz or Beanie Baby or Beyblade when you can have 97.
And why does modern parenthood involve hours of pruning junk, tossing out headless Spidermen, vacuuming up bits of Harry Potter Lego and Playmobil castles, while cussing out McDonald’s and the dentist’s treasure box?
Next week, the release of the new Transformers movie brings the glorification of plastic playstuff to new heights because, in this strange reversal of the traditional metamorphosis, the toy actually came first.
As environmentalist and Toronto City Councillor Gord Perks puts it, “we’ve closed the circle.” It used to be the comic strip or the movie came out, then came the toy spinoffs. “Now it’s the marketing and then the movie and then the marketing again.”
And really, does the world truly need a Mr. Potato Head Transformer?
The result of all this is that keeping toy collections under control is about as easy as digging your way out of a landfill site with a plastic spoon.
Amid all the other urgent environmental priorities, it hasn’t been high on the radar either.
The July edition of Today’s Parent magazine included a Green Living Guide with 99 eco ideas for family living.
Among the tips about guilt-free gardening and conserving energy, there was no mention of how to curb plastic kiddie paraphernalia. But a separate feature on best toys of summer included a plastic wiggly water sprinkler, a plastic waterball pirate cannon and an ultralight plastic aerokite.
The consumerism pushed on kids and Mass production of toys with short shelf lives drives parents like Alejandra Bravo crazy.
When the Toronto community activist and mother of three ran for city council last year, her speeches often included rants on the subject, sparked, she says, by the four-inch Darth Vader action figure her son wanted, which was encased in 12 inches of plastic packaging.
Like most modern parents, Bravo doesn’t want to deprive her kids, but she’s sick and tired of the vigilance required to ward off junk.
Everything is marketed to be part of a collection, and to be discarded when the next fad comes along. “They end up having so much that they can’t play with it,” she says. “And once you get to Barbie number 48, when is it ever going to be enough?”
Bravo pleads with her relatives not to give any more toys. She’s outlawed loot bags and when her kids have their heart set on something, she gets them to choose one durable toy instead of a bunch that are destined to break.
“I don’t think it’s ever too early to treat children like they’re protagonists in all this,” she says. “If you tell them, they get it.”
Not necessarily without a struggle though. Even Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, knows that.
His 3-year-old son is currently obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine and his ever-expanding circle of friends and accessories.
“I was amazed at how quick and all-consuming it was,” says Smith. He’s in favour of teaching kids from a young age that imaginative play isn’t just about how many toys you accumulate. He predicts the next five years will see a revolution, not only in the reformulation of plastics, but also the requirements on manufacturers to reduce packaging and deal with life cycles of their products, including toys.
It’s also something parents are finally starting to talk seriously about. And the result is that toy libraries, swaps and sharing networks are springing up in some neighbourhoods.
It’s an uphill battle trying to curb kids’ appetites for trendy, pristine gadgets they see on TV, but to Perks, maybe we can start by looking back.
He remembers the third-generation electric train set he had as a kid. Part of its appeal was in knowing that as little boys, his dad and grandfather had also played with it.
“Shiny bright plastic designed to go into a landfill doesn’t replace that thrill.”