Toxins in old toys an obstacle for circular economy

toy cat

Old toys and dress-up items may contain toxic chemicals that can cause cancer, damage DNA or disrupt the future reproductive capacities of children, according to researchers from the University of Gothenburg who have recently published an article on the topic in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances.

When the researchers tested a large number of old toys and dress-up items made of plastic, 84 per cent of the items were found to contain toxins that can disrupt growth and development and reproductive capacities in children. These toxins are an obstacle for the circular economy in the future involving reuse and recycling, they explain.

The current use-and-discard behaviour is wasteful with resources and a drain on the Earth’s finite resources. In 2021, the European Parliament adopted a Circular Economy Action Plan. It encourages the re-use, repair and recycling of products and materials. But the question is whether all products are good to reuse again?

Toxic chemicals in most old toys
The hazardous chemicals that were discovered included phthalates and short chain chlorinated paraffins used as plasticizers and flame retardants in toys.

Professor Bethanie Carney Almroth at the University of Gothenburg conducts research on the environmental impact of plastics and plastic-related chemicals, and has led the research study conducted at the interdisciplinary Centre for Future Chemical Risk Assessment and Management Strategies (FRAM). For the study, researchers selected 157 different toys, new and old, and measured their chemical content.

The study showed that most of the older toys and items (84 per cent) contained quantities of chemicals that exceed current legal limits. A total of 30 per cent of the newer toys and items also exceeded the legal limits. By far however, the older toys were significantly worse.

“The concentrations of toxic substances were significantly higher in the older items. For example, many of the old balls were found to have concentrations of phthalates totalling more than 40 per cent of the toy’s weight, which is 400 times over the legal limit,” says Bethanie Carney Almroth.

Toxins an obstacle to a circular economy
EU legislation on the chemical content of toys, known as the Toy Safety Directive, regulates the permissible quantities of a number of chemical substances found in toys in an attempt to protect the health and safety of children. At present, the permissible limit values for new toys under the Toy Safety Directive are 0.1 per cent by weight for phthalates and 0.15 per cent by weight for short chain chlorinated paraffins.

“The study indicates that reuse and recycling is not always automatically a good thing. The transition to a more circular economy requires bans and other policy measures that get rid of hazardous chemicals from plastic and other materials. Although the Toy Safety Directive has been crucial in reducing the incidence of hazardous chemicals in toys, it has only been applicable to new toys, not old ones,” explains Daniel Slunge, Environmental Economist at the University of Gothenburg.