Toy tug o' war

G Magazine

When it comes to buying playthings for the kids, is plastic or wood the more sustainable material?

Wooden Toy

Credit: iStockphoto

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On average, we import more than $100 million worth of toys during the Christmas period, according to The australian Bureau of Statistics. That's a heavy load in Santa's sack. Considering the potential environmental impacts, which makes the greener GIFT: plastic or wooden toys?

Going to the source

Most plastics used in toys, such as PVC, are made from non-renewable petroleum and petroleum-based
products. Some wooden toys are also made from non-renewable resources including unsustainably harvested
wood from old-growth forests.

However, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies responsibly sourced wood products.

"FSC recognises responsible forest management and certifies products, including games and toys, sourced
from those forests," says FSC Australia business manager Adam Trumble.

Production and by-products

Although no data specific to plastic and wooden toys are available, a comparable life cycle assessment of vinyl and wooden flooring carried out by researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, clearly puts wood in front based on a range of environmental impacts.

Over its life cycle, vinyl flooring uses five times as much fossil fuel and generates nearly 10 times the amount of carbon dioxide compared to the same area of wooden product. Wooden flooring also has much lower total energy requirements and produces less waste over its lifespan.

Where do broken toys go?

Wooden toys are generally more durable than plastic ones. Plastics are the most common item found on Clean Up Australia Day and non-biodegradable landfill is a big issue for the plastics industry.

Plastic debris in the oceans is also a concern. "Plastic toys and balloons are definitely components of marine debris, and can be ingested by marine animals, including turtles and birds," confirms independent consultant Daniela Ceccarelli, author of a report on the impacts of plastic debris on Australian marine life.

Many broken plastic toys can be recycled. Check out the Clean Up Australia fact sheet on this topic. Certain woods can also be recycled, increasing carbon storage and reducing landfill. Take any unwanted good-quality toys to the op shop or pass them on to friends or family.

Toxins in toy town

Some toys contain toxic chemicals such as phthalates, which make PVC more flexible. Phthalates have been linked to hormonal imbalances and birth defects and research suggests the chemicals may be released when toys are sucked or chewed.

The EU and USA have banned a number of phthalates in toys. In 2010, Australia also announced a temporary ban on products likely to come into significant contact with the mouth (such as infant feeding utensils and
toys) that contain more than one per cent diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP).

Lead and cadmium are sometimes added to PVC and lead-based paints are still commonly used on imported wooden toys. Australia recently tightened its policy on the acceptable amount of lead in toys to a maximum of 90 mg/kg.

The verdict

Wooden toys are clearly a more environmentally sound option than the plastic alternatives. In terms of emissions, energy, waste, toxins and landfill, wood is the winner. It's still important to check wooden toys for
FSC certification, and be aware that imported toys could contain lead-based paint.


If buying plastic, look out for non-PVC options or toys made from recycled plastic. For older kids' toys, scour the op shop or your local Freecycle group.


Look for the FSC certification logo when buying wooden toys.


Try making your own wooden and soft toys from recycled wood and scrap or vintage material. You can find ideas on the Internet. Simple wooden puzzles and blocks are a great place to start.