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How to gift toys sustainably during the holidays

DePaul University environmental scientist Christie Klimas shares insight into the impact of toys

Stack of colorful wrapped presents and a plush teddy bear
Consumers can help drive demand for more sustainable toys, says environmental scientist Christie Klimas. (
CHICAGO — In the toy aisle of a nearby store, hundreds of dolls, LEGO sets and stuffed animals await becoming a child’s favorite gift of the year. During this holiday season, consider how gifting a new plastic toy may impact the environment. Christie Klimas, associate professor of environmental science at DePaul University, researches the environmental impact of children’s toys​. In this Q&A, she shares how to gift toys more sustainably to protect the Earth:

What should consumers keep in mind when trying to buy toys sustainably?
There are lots of opportunities to create more sustainable toys, but there’s a real tradeoff between environmental impacts and the way that toys are sold. With relatively lower price points, companies have to make and sell a lot of toys to be profitable. There is a tension here, but I think that changing the way we as consumers think about purchasing could potentially help resolve this tension.

One thing to think about when trying to shop for toys sustainably is the life cycle of that toy, relative to the stage of life the child is in right now. Consider the value that a child would get from a toy. Babies, for example, move quickly through developmental stages so they use toys for a very short time. One of the best things you can do is borrow baby toys from family, friends or toy libraries.

As children get older, they can potentially play with toys for longer if those toys are interactive. Buying heavier plastic toys, like LEGO, that last longer and can contribute to imaginative play can be a wise investment due to their longevity, even though they have a higher impact in terms of contributing to climate change. Thoughtful, long-lived toys are often the best choice.

Used toys are much cheaper and extend the lifetime of the toys, lowering the impact per time that a child plays with them. However, there is a stigma associated with used toys. There are more and more markets where refurbished bicycles or refurbished cell phones make economic and environmental sense. Yet with kids, I think the desire for newness hasn’t really gone away.

How does the material a toy is made of affect its environmental impact?
There are lots of trade-offs when it comes to materials. Sometimes you get lower priced toys by making them less sturdy, but it is not necessarily the case that higher priced toys have a higher impact or vice versa.

Plastic generally increases the global warming potential of toys. In our research, we compared stuffed dogs with and without a battery, and found that the stuffed dog with a battery was more impactful. The battery itself didn't drive that additional impact; it was actually the nylon granulate plastic that went into the casing for that battery.

Sometimes wooden toys can negatively affect the environment but can often be composted at the end of its life. Since they don’t have to go into a landfill, like most plastic toys, wooden toys have a practically negligible end of life impact.

What are the most important aspects of determining whether a toy is sustainable?
There are many different aspects that determine the environmental impact of a given toy, and the materials are only one part. The embodied energy of a toy considers everything that goes into it. This includes the materials, gathering resources to make those materials, forming them into the toy, the packaging around it, transporting those toys to the final consumer, and any energy associated with using that toy.

This is why toy libraries are so interesting and useful for sustainability. They reduce the transportation impact of toys, which means reducing the number of miles that toys are shipped. Transportation makes up a relatively high proportion of toys’ embodied energy compared to other products. Having local opportunities for reuse can drop the impact of a toy significantly, in addition to potentially extending the lifetime of that toy.

How can people shift their buying habits to gift more sustainably?
One of the biggest things that people should think about is whether they are getting something because they feel an obligation or because the recipient of that toy is really going to be excited about it. As a parent, I’ve taken my child to a birthday party and nearly every single guest bought a Squishmallow. They’re wonderful, relatively low impact toys, but the child probably does not need 15 Squishmallows.

We give people a lot of things that they don’t need that end up in landfills. Changing this is hard because it requires a shift in the way that we think about giving. It requires finding ways to show you value someone that is separate from buying something new or that will have a longer timeline of benefit. Reducing this excess consumption is an easy way to reduce environmental impact.

Jade Walker is a student assistant of media relations and communications in University Communications.


Christie Klimas

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