Q: I feel a little guilty buying plastic toys as Christmas presents for my nieces and nephews. Any alternatives?
A: We all scramble at this time of year to find that perfect gift for the little tots in our lives, the kind that secure you the title of cool aunt or hip dad. Trouble is, most of the items on their wish lists are loaded with the types of toxins you don't want them playing with, like action figures and plastic dolls moulded from that demon plastic PVC, a hazardous known human carcinogen that leaches long after it's landfilled. To make matters worse, hard PVC toys can contain lead and cadmium. In fact, in the late 90s Greenpeace found that 20 per cent of PVC toys contained lead.
And if it's a soft, squishy toy destined to be drooled on and chewed by the youngest ones in your circle, then the PVC was likely softened with harmful phthalates. Many will tell you the jury's still out on the plasticizer's toxicity, but Canada has prohibited its use in soothers and teethers, and the EU banned it altogether. Back in 99, toy giant Mattel (maker of Barbie and Fisher-Price toys) announced it would be phasing out PVC, instead using more organic materials like oils and starches, and stopped using phthalates for toys for kids under three. Brio and Chicco toys are fully PVC and phthalate-free. (For a full list of toy makers and where they stand on this, check out www.nypirg.org/consumer/2002/).
But it ain't just plastics that can spoil playtime. Teddy bears are stuffed with synthetics or pesticide-drenched cottons. Even wooden toys can be made with varnishes and paints high in ozone-depleting volatile organic compounds, and they aren't usually made with sustainably harvested wood. Many toys are sprayed with brominated fire retardants, the very kind turning up in breast milk. Eesh!
Then there's all the freakin' packaging that quadruples the size of the actual toy and ends up in landfills, a serious problem when you factor in the fact that Canadians spend just over $1.4 billion annually on toys, many of them purchased at this time of year.
But fear not, holiday shoppers! While eco-friendly toys aren't exactly taking the malls by storm, there is a decent selection out there if you know where to look. Grassroots on Danforth or Bloor carries organic-cotton-stuffed toys, including a bunny and a doggy ($29 each). For bath time, Grassroots offers a rubber frog wearing a life preserver, and a rubber ducky, both made of natural rubber hand-painted with non-toxic paint ($9.99/$25.99 for "Mr. Big" versions). Grassroots also carries a selection of games and toys for older kids, like super-cool solar-powered model kits (i.e., race cars, helicopters and windmills from $25) and games made from natural and recycled materials with green educational themes like There's A Growly In The Garden ($15.99) or Professor Noggin Card Games with earth science, oceans and wildlife themes ($16.99).
Spark lifelong interest in the powers of Mother Nature with books like Exploring The Night Sky and Do Tornadoes Really Twist? ($7.99 at Mastermind, Queen East, Yonge, and other locations). Colourful books on bugs, birds or bears are great for younger children.
Nature Lab: The Ultimate Nature Pack is a great introduction to the natural world, complete with manuals to guide you through over 50 experiments about plants and the environment, a magnifying glass, a collecting net and rock samples ($27.95 at Mastermind).
Treasure Island on Danforth offers all kinds of cool stuff, including handcrafted toxin-free Audubon Society-endorsed stuffed birds with authentic bird calls ($9.99), hemp bead kits ($10) and natural rubber lizards by Rep Pals ($5.49). Also at Treasure Island, find Plan Toys' great dollhouses, boats, instruments and more made from rubberwood from trees that no longer produce rubber (starting at $20). Or get a Wild Republic Endangered Species School Kit ($5.49) or themed animal-filled Nature Tube ($8.99). Part of the proceeds goes to charity.
Since sweatshops plague the toy biz as much as the clothing biz, there's one good way to ensure your gifts aren't bringing misery to others or the earth: buy fair trade. Ten Thousand Villages on Danforth or Yonge carries wooden puzzles made by disadvantaged Sri Lankan youth using fast-growing plantation-grown wood and lead- and toxin-free paints ($8-$14). Or get a lovely cloth doll from Peru made with natural unbleached and vegetable-dyed cotton ($20). Blue Moon on Danforth has fair-trade hand-carved mobiles (from $19.99), cats (from $1.99) and wooden pencils topped with carved animals ($2.50 each).
Or give to eco charities like Earthroots and get a great gift for your budding animal lover. Adopt-a-wolf packages ($50) include a stuffed "Howlie," certificate and membership. Or just buy the Howlie, from $13 (416-599-0152). The World Wildlife fund has similar adopt-a-polar-bear, wolf, gorilla or tiger packages for $40 (416-489-8800).
A wonderful way to take a more earth-sensitive approach is to support local handcrafted toy makers like the Brothers Dressler, who make toxin-free wooden toys from farmed birch scraps leftover from their furniture biz ($30-$40 at Simone Interiors on Queen West; 50 per cent of proceeds goes to Sick Kids). Plus, you'll find plenty of magical, creative gifts for toddlers and tweens at craft shows like One Of A Kind, on until December 5 at Exhibition Place. You can talk directly to the artisans and ask them all your eco questions. Of course, if you buy local, less fossil fuel is used in transport.
Whatever you do, try to buy products with minimal (and recyclable) packaging. And if your kids have grown bored with last year's toys, please donate to places like the Toronto firefighters Toy Drive or Goodwill. Many children would be all too happy to "recycle" them! And if money's a little tight around your house this holiday season, why not head to Goodwill or Value Village yourself? They sell toys for as little as 25 cents!
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