I occasionally come across articles from online bloggers talking about whether plush or stuffed animals are eco-friendly and sustainable. Many of them typically offer advice on how to make these products more earth-friendly, such as making them home, using organic cotton, or avoiding plush toys made in Asian countries like India and China. Unfortunately, these bloggers seem to have little or no knowledge about plush production, product safety and materials. Some opinions and suggestions are too superficial, incorrect, and even irresponsible.
This time, I will break down many people's misconceptions about plush toy making, and how to make them more environmentally friendly and sustainable, based on plush toy projects that I have worked with several global brands around the world over the years.
Myth 1: Soft toy, plush and stuffed toys mean the same thing?
Technically yes. All my clients use them interchangeably. Plush, however, refers more to stuffed toys with fluffy/furry material.
Myth #2: Toys made from natural materials like organic cotton are environmentally friendly.
Yes and no. People are often misled by sellers who claim their plush toy is eco-friendly because it is made from organic cotton. Organic cotton is certainly an eco-friendly material, but that's only one part of the whole plush toy. I would say more than 90% of stuffed toys in stores are not eco-friendly, especially furry plush toys. Most stuffed toys in the market are made with 100% polyester fabric and stuffing. The outer fabric is usually polyester because of its wide variety of color options, pile lengths and attractive low cost. Polyester is also a relatively low-risk material from a product safety standpoint, as it typically passes EN71 1-2-3 and ASTMF-963 standards. The chance of color fastness problems and other quality problems are low. Additional processing, such as printing and embossing, is also easy and inexpensive. In addition, polyester filling is more hygienic than other natural fillings such as wool, as it is fully machine-made and requires no or little manual processing. Therefore, many well-known global toy brands still use polyester in most of their stuffed toys.
Although polyester has many advantages, its biggest disadvantage is that it does not break down easily. That's why some brands have started making toys using more natural materials, including cotton fabrics, jute fabrics, and more. This will certainly improve the biodegradability of the product. However, the filling is still synthetic polyester. Even global brands find it hard to forego polyester filling because it's soft to the touch, inexpensive, consistent in quality, and extremely hygienic.
I once saw a blogger suggesting wool instead of polyester for filling. I disagree from a product safety standpoint. Yes, wool is natural, but it is not guaranteed to be hygienic. Wool fibers are not tailor-made for plush filling, so neither quality nor hygiene can be guaranteed. Of course, if someone is at home making stuffed animals for his/her kids, that's a different story. If the plush toy is to be sold in stores around the world, this material is unlikely to pass the international toy safety standards set by EN 71 and ASTM.
Currently, most plush toys made from natural fabrics such as organic cotton are mainly knitted or woven fabrics that are not furry. This non-furry fabric is especially suitable for baby toys due to hygiene concerns. However, this is also a design constraint.
Myth 3: If I make my own stuffed animal at home from old clothes, then it's eco-friendly and sustainable.
True, but there are other safety concerns. It's a great idea to turn used fabric into plush toys. Even though we've been involved in many plush projects over the years, we don't encourage people to buy too many. In fact, our company began phasing out plush toy programs ten years ago. Over the years, I've seen many plush toys thrown away like trash. Like fast fashion, plush toys have ever-shorter product life cycles. As people's household income increases, their needs for toys become more and more complex, and this trend is much shorter than it was two decades ago. When a fad fades, so does user enthusiasm for toys. They usually end up in landfills, where they sit for hundreds of years.
The disadvantages of homemade plush toys are undoubtedly product safety and hygiene issues. Many people ignore safety concerns. Don't blame them because they are not in the toy business. In fact, in the production of toys, product safety is more important than environmental protection. This golden rule holds true whether the soft toy is produced in Germany, India, China, or Vietnam. There are a series of international standards, such as EN-71 Part 1-2-3, which restrict factories to produce safe and clean toys. I'm afraid it's hard for homemade toys to meet these standards.
So, if you really want to make a stuffed animal at home out of old clothes, do it for kids over three. Avoid making it for babies, as they tend to suck anything into their mouth. This can be potentially dangerous.
How can soft toys be made more sustainable and eco-friendlier?
Before making recommendations, remember that product safety is always a top priority when it comes to toy making. Nothing can beat this golden rule. I will discuss this in detail in a future article.
Now, let's see how to choose or make a more earth-friendly and sustainable plush toy:
(1) Choose natural fabrics
Use natural fabrics such as high-count cotton or bamboo fabrics. I recommend high thread count as it has more resistance to tension and is less prone to tearing.
Use organic fabrics, when possible, but they often lack color options and variety. So, you can use regular natural ones too. Sometimes pushing yourself too hard is not necessary. Moreover, if using natural materials to make toys for children under the age of three, it is recommended not to choose dark colors such as black, red, and blue. This is because natural fabrics such as cotton fabrics are not as fast to color as polyester fabrics. Since babies under the age of three love to put things in their mouths, dark pigments on fabrics can pose a potential hazard. This rule also applies to soft toys purchased in stores.
(2) Ecological dyes
This is not easy to verify at consumer level. However, at production level, we always must verify the source of materials and ensure their safety. Using ecological dyes is essential. In some countries such as China, government already imposed environmental laws that only ecological dyes can be used in textile production. It is illegal to use dyes that do not comply to the government’s environment law. So, even if you can’t use organic fabric, make sure the fabrics are colored by ecological dyes.
(3) If natural fabrics are not an option, please choose plush toys made of RPET fabric
If I had to use a synthetic fabric, then I would go with rPET fabric. rPET, short for recycled polyethylene terephthalate, refers to "any PET material that comes from recycled sources, such as used water bottles, rather than virgin, unprocessed petrochemical feedstock," Jaber said.
rPET can be produced using less energy and resources and reduces carbon emissions. Additionally, rPET reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by more than 79% compared to virgin PET. It also helps minimize marine PET waste, which is highly toxic to ecosystems.
(4) Decomposable fibre stuffing
While polyester fiber fill is popular, there are also compostable fills made with PLA corn fiber. The advantage is that it can be decomposed, and at the same time meets the toy safety requirements. The downside compared to polyester is its elasticity and soft feel. However, if matched with the correct material and structural design, it remains a satisfactory alternative to synthetic stuffing. Unfortunately, plush toys with this stuffing are hard to find in stores. Also, it's not without weaknesses, as it requires special facilities to break down. We will discuss this in detail in future articles.
(5) Decomposable pallets
What many people may not notice is that many plush toys contain plastic pellets for added feel and weight. Like polyester fabrics, it can take centuries to decompose if they end up in landfills.
The best solution is to choose a plush toy with no pellets inside, although this will affect its unique feel and weight.
One possible solution is to replace plastic pellets with biodegradable plastic pellets, such as those made from PLA. PLA, the full name of Polylactic Acid, is a bio-based polyester made from cornstarch, sugar cane, etc. Its feel and weight are very similar to plastic particles in stuffed toys. However, PLA particles have the same disadvantages as PLA fillers.
(6) Buy good quality plush toys that can last longer, buy less, or buy other
It is undeniable that compared with other toys, plush toys are mostly cute, cuddly, and affordable. It's hard to resist when kids see them at toy stores or adults buy them as gifts. So, buy a high-quality, durable plush toy that you can share with siblings and friends for extended use.
Since most plush toys end up in landfills where they take centuries to decompose, buying fewer toys is the best way to reduce waste and negative impact on our planet. So, before buying, consider how many plush toys your child already owns. Are there other better options like Monopoly suits, puzzles, etc.?
Some people may ask, why don't these big brands make plush toys more environmentally friendly? Many people think it is for profit. Yes, this is part of the reason, but I think the main reason is that the international standards set by the EU and ASTM are too high. As I said, product safety is always the top priority when talking about toy making, not eco-friendliness. Therefore, no matter whether it is a big brand or a manufacturer, they are unwilling to take the risk of being too radical in material selection, because the consequences could be very serious (such as recall, fines, etc.).
In fact, all toys, whether they are plush toys or hard toys, must undergo comprehensive safety testing according to international standards such as EN71 or ASTM F963, because the goods cannot be shipped without a pass test report. In addition, big brands also have inspectors to check all items before shipping. So, I'd say most stuffed toys sold in stores are generally safe.
As difficult as it is, someone needs to take the first step towards changing the status quo. So our team created a plant-based plush bear made from natural cotton fabric and bioplastic filling. To make the bear more sustainable, the bear is not just a toy, but a keepsake that can be kept forever, as it can be signed on any memorable occasion like graduation, birthday party, or kids colouring. We believe that with unremitting efforts and persistence, we will be able to create more sustainable and safer products.
Check out our plant-based stuffed bears:
Works CitedSamir Jaber. (n.d.). What is rPET and why we need it? Retrieved November 2022, from matmatch.com: https://matmatch.com/suppliers/lvgr-lavergne/examples/what-is-rpet-and-why-we-need-it
Municipality Waste, Recycling, Types of Waste. (2021, August 11). PLA vs Plastic: What's the difference? Retrieved from rts.com: https://www.rts.com/blog/pla-vs-plastic-whats-the-difference/