How to Cut Down on Cheap Plastic Toys

Photo: Getty Images

It’s everywhere. The cheap kazoo. Strings of Mardi Gras beads. Spider rings. Crazy straws. Magnifying glasses that just make things look blurry. Off-brand Slinkies. So many frisbees. Mini squirt guns that don’t actually squirt. I don’t buy a lot of plastic crap for my kids, but somehow, it finds its way into my home. The stuff gets played with for all of eleven seconds before being buried into the deep abyss also known as our toy bin.

There are plenty of good reasons to try to end the cycle of single-use plastic toys: a lot of them are contaminated with industrial chemicals, the material is nearly indestructible and there’s not a lot potential for creative, open-ended play. But breaking throwaway culture takes real work. Here are some things you can do.

Get your kids on board

I support the classic method of reducing plastic kid crap: Wait ‘til your children aren’t looking, and get it the hell out of your home. But know that if you want lasting change, it’s going to take more than some quick ninja moves. You should explain to your kids why we should cut back on plastic. Do this in an age-appropriate way—a preschooler probably won’t comprehend the intricacies of BPA and phthalates, but can certainly feel sad that discarded plastic hurts baby sea turtles. Gina, a member of the Offspring Facebook group, says she has had constant discussions with her 4-year-old daughter about “not wanting to make extra trash.” Now, she’s already internalizing the idea herself.

Consider a toy’s “lifetime use”

For most parents—myself included—it’s just not realistic to put a household ban on plastic toys. And that’s okay. A friend recently offered me this Fisher Price door, and I gladly accepted it. I’ve seen the thing in action—babies love the Fisher Price door. It had already been handed down to three different children before it reached our home. The lifetime usage of this toy is high. Sure, I’d prefer that my infant’s room only contain beautiful wooden toys like an Instagram masterpiece, but it’s also worth considering how long an item will played with.

Start changing your ways

Some ideas to cut down on throwaway toys:

  • Try a toy-sharing subscription service. For instance, Toy Library will send you two used toys per month (they make sure to clean and sanitize them).
  • Organize a toy swap among your friends. You can swap books and clothes, too.
  • Teach your kids how to fix things rather than throw them away. iFixIt.com has tips and tutorials for repairing household items such as clocks and fans.
  • For your kids’ birthdays, request experiences over things. Think annual passes to the museum, admission to the ice skating rink and tickets to sporting events.

Be the change

You can’t really control what other people give your kid—the birthday gifts, the goody bags, the little prizes from the dentist’s office treasure box. But you can manage the amount of throwaway toys you add to the cycle. Rozen, a member of the Offspring Facebook group, tells us that she does not buy any Christmas or birthday gifts for her two-year-old son because she knows his grandparents will be buying him a ton of stuff. Another member named Deborah writes that whenever she hosts a birthday party, she requests that everyone bring a wrapped book (new, used, or from their shelves) instead of a gift, and the kids swap. “They all get something to unwrap, we don’t end up with a bunch of cheap toys, and their home libraries get a little refresh,” she explains.

Know that unless you’re a part of a likeminded circle, these types of decisions are acts of resistance, and you may get some raised eyebrows. At the end of my daughter’s fifth birthday party, one kid came up to me and said he didn’t get a goody bag. When I told him that we weren’t giving out goody bags, he almost cried. (His dad handed him a giant loaf of bread from the food table before any tears were shed.) It’s not easy being a trailblazer but you might just inspire other parents to follow your lead, as they, too, start to realize: “Wait, you mean I don’t have to deal with all this crap?”

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