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Living With Climate Change: Barbie is all virgin plastic for now — but Mattel’s pledge for less packaging and recycled toys means change is coming

Will birthday-party cleanup get a little easier on parents — and easier on the environment?

Mattel
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one of the world’s largest toy companies, believes so. The maker of Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars announced Wednesday that it plans to reduce plastic packaging by 25% per product by 2030.

And it will continue efforts to use less virgin plastic overall in making and sourcing its toys and games. The company aims to hit 100% recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastic in all toys and packaging by 2030.

Most consumer companies and their retailers have felt pressure to react to a plastic crisis among more discerning customers. But their timelines for change have varied, particularly as new plastic remains relatively cheap to produce. It’s made from oil
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and gas, and it’s almost always less expensive and of better quality to start fresh. But technology for plastic refuse has improved as have alternatives, driven in large part by the negative impact of plastic on the environment.

Plastic pollution in the ocean is projected to increase significantly in the coming decades, with some estimates predicting a rise to 29 million tons annually by 2040, according to Pew Trusts. This plastic can harm fish and other wildlife and spoil water recreation.

Read: Here’s the tiny percentage of plastic that’s recycled despite single-use bans, taxes and incentives

The Mattel news comes as the company was pushed by shareholder interests to cut back on plastic. Green Century Capital Management, which bills itself as an environmentally responsible fund, said it will withdraw a shareholder proposal now that the plastic initiative has preceded proxy season, when increased pressure on Mattel to catch up with competitors had been expected.

The company’s stock was also active Wednesday amid reports of private-equity buyout talk.

With its new sustainability goal, Mattel is aligning itself with some of its competitors in the toy industry, such as HasbroHAS, which has pledged to completely eliminate new plastic in all product packaging by the end of this year.

“You don’t even realize how much plastic comes with a toy until you see the mess left behind at a child’s birthday party or during the holiday season. Kudos to Mattel for addressing its role in the toy industry’s plastic packaging problem,” said Leslie Samuelrich, president of Green Century Capital Management.

Mattel has already increased its disclosure about packaging materials as part of this agreement, reporting on how much recycled content it uses in its Citizenship Report.

“The progress across our Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) strategy and goals, and our new goal announced today, reflects our ongoing commitment to corporate citizenship and our purpose to empower the next generation to explore the wonder of childhood and reach their full potential,” said Ynon Kreiz, Mattel’s chairman and CEO.

Additional steps in the company’s sustainability report include expanding a goal for 95% of paper and wood fiber used in its products and packaging to be certified by the Rainforest Alliance and the launch of a toy takeback program that will recover and reuse some materials from old Mattel toys.

Read: Recycling is confusing — how to be smarter about all that takeout plastic

“Mattel’s new goal is particularly important because it addresses the company’s total plastic use, not just reducing new plastic in favor of recycled material,” Green Century’s Samuelrich said. “Making outright cuts to plastic use is critical for addressing plastic pollution’s impacts on wildlife and the climate.”

The U.N. Environment Program has taken a closer look at plastic production. The group recognizes the vital use of plastic in medical devices, food preservation, creating smartphones that change how people work and play, and its role in making autos lighter and more fuel-efficient. But that also means UNEP puts tougher scrutiny on industries that remain plastic-dependent without trying for alternatives. And it classified the toy industry as the most plastic-intensive in the world.

“Concerns are growing about [plastic’s] impact on the world’s ecosystems. Marine wildlife is particularly vulnerable, and harmed through entanglement and ingestion of plastic,” the panel said in its report. “There is a risk of microscopic particles transferring toxins into the food chain. Plastic manufacturing processes use non-renewable resources, such as oil, and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere contributing to climate change. In addition, the use of chemical additives in plastic may be hazardous to human health.”

Read:Plastic was found in human blood for the first time. Is this a public health risk?

Mattel, meanwhile, also announced what it called “accelerated progress” toward a goal to reduce Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% by 2030. The company said it can report an 8% reduction in absolute Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions versus the 2019 baseline year. GHG are behind the accelerated man-made global warming that is bringing stronger severe weather, drought and other costly challenges.

Scope 1 and 2 emissions are those directly linked to a company’s operations, including emissions from plant operations and overall energy use. The more challenging Scope 3 emissions, those throughout a company’s supply chain and not usually in its direct control, weren’t mentioned in the release.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is drawing closer on proposed regulations that aim to make listed companies responsible for reporting all emissions, including Scope 3.

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