The holidays are an exciting time of year for children—full of decorations, festivities, and gifts! Unfortunately, it can be a much different experience for conscientious parents who want to purchase thoughtful, ethically made products for their children but feel overwhelmed navigating the sea of cheap plastic in search of quality. Commercials, toy stores, and holiday catalogues heavily market plastic toys to children, making it feel like the only option. This is not far from the truth. In fact, ninety percent of toys in North America are made with plastic, and most of them are not recyclable.
This means that almost all of the 28 billion dollars’ worth of toys sold annually in the US are destined for a landfill. It is no wonder then that the world is in a plastic epidemic: Eight million tons of plastic waste finds its way into our oceans every year—that’s like setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline on the planet. Childhood fantasies advertised in the form of the coolest new action figure or a doll resembling the latest movie princess are contributing to the nightmare of plastic pollution that will haunt children’s futures.
Toxic Toys not Rigidly Regulated
Plastic pollution is not only alarming on a macro scale, but it is a shocking reality on a micro level as well, since the chemicals and toxins used in plastic products lack rigid regulation. Phthalates, chemicals used to soften plastic, have been reported to cause cancer, diabetes, and reproductive issues—especially in males. In 2008, US Congress banned three types of phthalates in children’s toys but it wasn’t until 2018 that five additional phthalate compounds were also banned, making it still very much a work in progress.
While the US does have an independent federal body, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), that tests for safety in household items, including toys, researchers assert that Americans “cannot rely on government to protect [their] children,” since the CPSC “is a small agency and…moves slowly due to industry and political opposition to its safety efforts.” Further, Congress leaves it up to the manufacturers themselves to test for hazardous substances, forcing parents to trust in the ethical values of private corporations to ensure product safety.
Factory Workers at Risk
Plastic toys aren’t just damaging to our environment and potentially detrimental to children, they can also put the people manufacturing them at risk. Three quarters of all toys and games in the world are manufactured in China, with America being its largest consumer. Of the 44 billion dollars’ worth of toys China manufactures every year, the United States alone spends 25 billion dollars, making US consumers incredibly persuasive influencers of the toy market.
When we purchase conventionally made toys from China, we are inadvertently supporting and perpetuating the unethical conditions for factory workers, including low wages and health hazards. Chinese factories that supply toys for Disney, Mattel, Fisher-Price, and McDonald’s pay their workers as little as $1.11 USD an hour and force them to work more than 100 hours of overtime each month. Other investigations have revealed that the high demand for toys during the holiday season means factories for Hasbro, Disney, and Mattel are allowing employees to work before receiving safety training. This means that workers are unaware of how to protect themselves from toxic chemicals such as benzene, which can lead to poisoning and leukemia.
Plastic-Free Toys for Little Ones
So, what’s a parent to do? It may seem impossible to find a children’s toy that is kind to the planet, safe for children, and is manufactured ethically, but Zeki Learning, a non-profit crafter of soft children’s toys, has something for you this holiday season! Designed for little ones up to seven years old and using brightly-colored, poly-cotton fabric, Zeki has developed toys that encourage tactile play. Because Zeki products are soft and handsewn with quality surplus fabric gathered from the region, the toys leave a much smaller environmental footprint compared to hard plastic toys. Additionally, Zeki toys are certified lead-free and safe by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and are machine-washable so they can be kept clean. Thorough vetting by early childhood educators at Hunter College and the University of Oklahoma ensures that the toys are both engaging and that they target vital cognitive, motor, social, and emotional skills in children.
Zeki has a mission to employ and empower refugee and low-income women by giving them a job that grows their skill set and pays them a living wage. Zeki employees work in a communal rather than a hierarchical environment and to further guarantee humane treatment, Zeki products are fair-trade certified.
This year, parents won’t have to choose between being environmentally and ethically conscious and buying super-fun, educationally sound toys for their kids. By supporting developers like Zeki, consumers have the power to influence the toy market and purchase products that are great for the planet, the hands that play with them, and the hands that make them.
Zeki Learning is part of a non-profit social enterprise called Child's Cup Full, based in the United States and the West Bank. Their mission is to create high quality learning materials for preschool age children that support cognitive development and language learning. At their artisan center in the West Bank, they train and employ refugee and low-income mothers to make beautifully handcrafted educational products.