In a Barbie world … after the movie frenzy fades, how do we avoid tonnes of Barbie dolls going to landfill?

Alan Pears

Alan Pears


It made headlines around the world when the much-hyped Barbie movie contributed to a world shortage of fluorescent pink paint.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When movies or TV shows become cultural phenomena, toymakers jump on board. And that comes with a surprisingly large amount of plastic waste. Think of the fad for Baby Yoda dolls after the first season of The Mandalorian in 2020. When the Barbie movie comes out this week, it’s bound to trigger a wave of doll purchases over and above the 60 million Barbies already sold annually.

Toys are the most plastic-intensive consumer goods in the world, according to a 2014 United Nations Environment Program report.

Worse, very few toys are recycled. That’s often because they can’t be – they’re made of a complex mixture of plastics, metals and electronics. When children get bored, these toys often end up in landfill.

In a Barbie world … after the movie frenzy fades, how do we avoid tonnes of Barbie dolls going to landfill?

The toll of the dolls

Consider a single Barbie doll. What did it cost to create?

Before the US-China trade war, half the world’s toys were manufactured in Dongguan, a city in China. That included one in three Barbie dolls.

American researchers last year quantified what each doll costs the climate. Every 182 gram doll caused about 660 grams of carbon emissions, including plastic production, manufacture and transport.

The researchers analysed seven other types of toys, including Lego sets and Jenga. By my calculations, emissions on average across all these types of toys are about 4.5 kilograms per kilogram of toys.

Scaled up, this is considerable. In the US, it’s estimated emissions from the plastics industry will overtake those from coal within seven years.

So the question is, how can we cut our emissions to zero as fast as possible to ensure we and our children have a liveable climate – without putting a blanket ban on plastic toys? After all, toys and entertainment add happiness to our lives.

The role for toymakers and governments

To date, there has been little focus on making the toy industry more sustainable. But it shouldn’t escape our notice.

Toy manufacturers can – and should – use low carbon materials and supply chains, and focus on making toys easily dissembled. Toys should be as light as possible, to minimise transport emissions. And battery-powered toys should be avoided wherever possible, as they can double a toy’s climate impact and turn a plastic waste problem into an electronic waste problem. To their credit, some toymakers have cut back on plastic in their packaging, given packaging immediately becomes waste.

In a welcome move, the maker of Barbie, Mattel, launched their own recycling scheme in 2021, allowing buyers to send back old toys to be turned into new ones. This scheme isn’t available in Australia, however.

Toymakers can help at the design stage by choosing the materials they use carefully. Governments can encourage this by penalising cheap, high-environmental-impact plastics. We can look to the European and American bans on BPA-containing plastics in infant milk bottles as an example of what’s possible. Governments can set up effective recovery and recycling systems able to handle toys.

In a Barbie world … after the movie frenzy fades, how do we avoid tonnes of Barbie dolls going to landfill?
Source: Unsplash

Some plastic-dependent brands such as Lego are unilaterally moving away from petrochemical-based plastic in favour of sugarcane-based plastic. But it’s not a short-term project.

While Barbie dolls had an uptick in popularity during the pandemic years – and will no doubt have another surge alongside the movie – longer-term trends are dampening plastic toy impact. While movies in the 1980s were often “toyetic” – conceived with an eye to toy sales – the trend is on the wane.

Gaming, for instance, has moved to centre stage for many older children. While gaming produces e-waste streams, it is also a likely cause of the longer-term fall in popularity of plastic toys.

What should we do?

If you’re a parent or an indulgent grandparent, it’s hard to avoid buying toys entirely – especially if your child gets obsessed with Barbie dolls after seeing the movie. So what should you do?

For starters, we can avoid cheap and nasty toys which are likely to break very quickly. Instead, look for toys which will last – and which will lend themselves to longer-term creative play. Think of the enduring popularity of brick-based toys or magnetic tiles. Look for secondhand toys. And look for toys made of simpler materials able to be recycled at the end of their lives – or even for the Barbie dolls made out of ocean plastics.

About the author: Alan Pears is a Senior Industry Fellow at RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Alan Pears

Alan Pears

Alan Pears is one of Australia's leading energy efficiency experts. He has worked in the sustainable energy and environment fields since the late 1970s, and been an expert adviser to federal, state and local governments across Australia, as well as community groups and the private sector. He is a regular commentator on everything from power-saving fridges to big-picture energy policy on radio, TV, newspapers and online, including appearances on ABC TV shows The New Inventors, Difference of Opinion and 4 Corners. Recent work has included being a judge of the annual Energy Efficiency Council Awards; co-authoring extensive industry energy information resources for the federal government's Energy Efficiency Exchange website and other organisations; and being a consultant and adviser to the not-for-profit Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity. He has worked on a number of projects for the RACE for 2030 Cooperative Research Centre. He is a member of the Board for the Voluntary Carbon Markets Association; and a member of the Advisory Board for the Climate Alliance. Until 2012 he was the Associate Director, RMIT Centre for Design. He was a part-time senior lecturer in environment and planning until mid-2015, and is now a Senior Industry Fellow at RMIT as well as a Fellow at the University of Melbourne's Climate and Energy College. While working for the Victorian government in the 1980s, he helped develop and implement programs such as the Home Energy Advisory Service, public information and education, appliance energy labelling and mandatory building insulation regulations. He has maintained an active involvement in these areas. From 1991 to 2015, Alan was co-director of Sustainable Solutions, an environmental consultancy, and has been involved in building energy and environmental rating and regulation, green building projects, educational software, green appliance development, industrial and business energy and environmental management, and policy analysis. He continues to consult, mainly to community groups, governments and industry associations. He writes for The Conversation.


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