In Our Real World, Barbie’s Plastic Is Not So Fantastic

Plastic pollutes every part of our lives, including our childhood.

In Greta Gerwig’s new movie, Barbie, actor Margot Robbie plays the film’s namesake plastic doll as she navigates Barbieland—a highly artificial, mostly plastic place designed seemingly for women empowerment and positivity. Yet, as the plot progresses, the film’s namesake becomes distressed when she leaves her perfect, pink plastic home to visit the challenging and imperfect “real” human world. But while reviewers have much to say about Barbie’s cultural significance, something that’s been less discussed is that in our world, Barbie’s plastic is not so fantastic.

As the Barbie movie rolls out worldwide, it has already sparked a surge in sales of Barbie dolls and accessories (the day a Margot Robbie Barbie went on sale, it became the number-one selling doll on Amazon), in addition to causing a surge in sales of synthetic early 2000s style fast-fashion clothing. These trends are all about plastic. That’s bad news for our bodies, social justice, the climate, our environment, and wildlife, which are all harmed by plastic pollution.

Plastic Toys Are Harmful to Human (Especially Children’s) Health

Few toys have a grip on our society quite like Barbie does, especially for people living in the United States, where culture is commonly defined by individuality and enterprise. For many children, Barbie is iconic: They are shown that Barbie can do or be anything. While play is critical for children, young people would do better than model themselves after an entirely plastic doll. In fact, Barbie, like all plastic toys and items, are harmful to human health because they are made of plastic.

It’s important for parents and guardians to understand how the developing bodies of children are especially vulnerable to plastic pollution. But when you’re a kid crafting another space mission for Astronaut Barbie or designing a wedding for Chef Barbie that includes a 200+ plushie guest list, plastic toxicity is the last thing on your mind.  The reality is that plastic toys, including Barbies, are made out of fossil fuels and a cocktail of chemical additives known to cause a variety of serious health problems. 

Barbie (and all of her plastic “friends” and accessories) are made with at least five types of fossil fuel-based plastics: polyvinyl chloride (PVC), ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), and hard vinyl—plus additive chemicals. One of these plastic additives, called Di(isononyl) cyclohexane-1,2-dicarboxylate (DINCH), has been used in newer Barbies to replace phthalates, which are additives linked to asthma, metabolic disorders, obesity, and other health problems. However, research on human cells suggests DINCH could have adverse outcomes similar to that of other toxic plasticizers in children’s toys. Plastic toys also release toxic microplastics and nanoplastics, which are easily inhaled and ingested (especially if your child chews on toys). Plastic toys also off-gas chemicals linked to fossil fuels called volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—which are linked to several health issues including eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; organ damage; nausea; and are potentially cancer-causing.

Children who chew on plastic toys risk absorbing dangerous chemicals, including lead, into their bodies. Plastics commonly contain hormone (endocrine) disrupting chemicals, and testing shows we are absorbing these chemicals into our bodies. Hormone disrupting chemicals are linked to serious health problems, including developmental, growth, metabolic, and reproductive issues. Historically, plastic producers have not been transparent about the toxic chemicals they use in their products, including children’s toys, at our expense. Experts say plastic toys made before 2007, particularly those made of PVC plastic, like Barbie, may be especially toxic.

Plastic Toys Are Plastic Pollution

Plastics are dangerous before they’re even plastics. Consider the explosion and pollution plume caused by the toxic trail derailment in Ohio earlier this year: Some of the train cars that derailed were carrying highly toxic ingredients used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC)—a plastic used to make water pipes, flooring, and childhood toys…including Barbies. While memorable, mass-produced children’s toys like Barbie seem to land in our shopping carts and on our screens shiny, pretty, and polished, we cannot afford to forget that these items ultimately pollute the air we breath, the food we eat, the water we drink, the soil at our feet, and all of our bodies. Despite the hype, plastic is not fantastic.

Plastic’s endless and toxic existence fuels serious pollution of our air, land, fresh water, ocean and bodies. This pollution starts when the  fossil fuel ingredients used to make plastics are extracted from the Earth and continues on into plastics and chemical production, storage, transportation, and manufacturing. Plastics carry on polluting throughout their use and eventual toxic “disposal” in landfills, incinerators, or the environment. When no longer desired or usable, Barbies, and other plastic toys, and all of their plastic packaging, are almost always not recyclable—because plastic was not designed to be recycled. Pollution, including the myriad forms of toxic pollution created by plastics throughout their existence, is responsible for approximately 9 million premature deaths per year (1 in 6 deaths) globally.

Low-income, rural, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities that have faced multiple levels of injustices are also unfortunately most likely to experience the worst impacts of plastic’s pollution. Living on the frontlines of the plastic and petrochemical industries and the storage, transportation, and disposal sites and infrastructure not only means more health problems due to extreme pollution, but also noise and light pollution, overall diminished quality of life, and an elevated risk of dangerous fires and accidents.

Many textiles—including those that Barbie wears—contain plastic. Plastic microfibers shed from synthetic textiles into the air, and waterways when washed. The mass-production of plastic fast fashion clothing ensures wastefulness, as clothes are rapidly bought and discarded for newer and newer clothing. Fast fashion and the culture of consumerism embodied in the Global North generates massive amounts of textile pollution that is disproportionately shipped to the Global South, where it drives dangerous pollution and injustice

What’s more, toys themselves are commonly produced in the Global South. Often, the people making the toys are exploited women and youth. Investigations have shown such toy factory workers are paid extremely low wages to work in hazardous conditions for long hours—often with no breaks. The pollution from these factories poison communities downstream.

Looking like a Barbie doll has become trendy, in large part due to the Barbie film release. “Barbiecore is soaring,” according to Time Magazine. Barbiecore is, in short, the aesthetic of early aughts: bubblegum-pop, bright, pink—embodying stereotypical ideas about quintessential, unapologetic girlhood. Ultimately, this fad represents and correlates with a time of unprecedented consumerism, from toys, video games, fast fashion, single-use plastic items, and other kinds of plastic pollution. 

Children May Outgrow Plastic Toys, but Plastic Toys Last Forever

Children’s toys weren’t always made of and packaged in plastic. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, most toys were made of glass, metal, or wood, and dolls were usually made of cloth. The rise of plastic mass-production following World War II led to mainstreaming of plastic toys—including Barbie, but also Mr. Potato Head, LEGO, GI Joe, and many others. Plastic toys were increasingly produced to replace cloth, glass, metal, and wooden toys particularly throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Today, it’s estimated at least 90 percent of children’s toys are made of plastic. Plastic’s durability, versatility, and safety are often marketed as the key reasons why so many children’s products are made of the material—despite plastic being a key driver of health problems, pollution, and injustice.

As Gerwig has recently told Time Magazine, “sometimes these movies can have a quality of hegemonic capitalism.” To cut through feelings of branding and consumerism, the filmmaker chose to add clips of the cast and crew’s friends and family to Barbie. “It’s like sneaking in humanity to something that everybody thinks is a hunk of plastic,” she told TIME.

Many of us who have played with Barbie and other plastic children’s toys growing up may feel nostalgia for these items and the culture of our generation. Despite all the glamor of Barbieland, and all the influence Barbie has had on our culture, we can acknowledge that the plastic she is made of and the wastefulness that her persona encouraged is full of ugly truths. Gerwig’s film itself received the Environmental Media Association (EMA) gold seal, indicating that the cast and crew practiced heightened sustainability practices behind the scenes and throughout production. So. instead of flocking to buy a Barbie amid our latest fascination with “life in plastic,” watch the movie instead; it’s more sustainable.

If you’re interested in what the EMA criteria looks like, or want to learn more about sustainability in Hollywood, watch our recent webinar with Asher Levin, Creative Director of EMA who, along with our other panelists, discusses key issues, green initiatives and efforts underway, and plastic-free solutions for the entertainment industry. To learn more about reducing plastic from sets, off of screens, and in storylines check out our Flip the Script on Plastics initiative working with SAG AFTRA’s Green Council.

It’s time for a new normal, where we choose health, justice, and regeneration over a world filled with plastic. We recommend children’s toys made from (and sold unpackaged or packaged in) nontoxic, regenerative, reusable, and safe materials, such as those sold by Plastic Pollution Coalition Member EarthHero. Consider giving plastic-free experiences, like a plastic-free birthday parties.

Learn more about plastic-free habits for families in our Healthy Baby Guide (and Healthy Pregnancy Guide), and commit to a world free of plastic pollution.

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3 responses to “In Our Real World, Barbie’s Plastic Is Not So Fantastic”

  1. Brian says:

    We drink out of plastic?
    That is bad too!

  2. Andres K Ruiz says:

    Wow first of all I wanna say: thank u! I thought I was the only one who were aware of all this. I was a Barbie doll collector until I discovered all of this, then I stopped and started to look for more information about the chemical composition of the doll without finding much info.
    After reading your article I have some questions to ask:
    1. What happens with the ASTM F963 regulations? I didn’t see any info about it, and I would like to know if they are like real regulations for all this plastic and toxicity stuff.
    2. Why did you say the before 2007 the plastic used in toys could be especially toxic? Did they changed something in that moment?

    I really appreciate you made this article, I’m one of the few people that is really interested to know and learn about this. Thank u guys!

  3. Erica Cirino says:

    Thanks for your comment. Glad to spread some awareness around your questions:
    1. In 2008, the US passed a measure requiring children’s toys meet ASTM F963 standards for safety to protect children from common toy hazards, including exposure to lead and phthalates (both of which are commonly found in plastic toys) as well as unsafe toy designed (like small parts that can be swallowed). See: https://newsroom.astm.org/safer-childrens-toys-%E2%80%93-astm-f963-toy-safety-standard-required-us-law
    2. In 2007, major toy companies recalled millions of toys due to lead poisoning. But, despite increased action and awareness around toxic toys, especially after the US moved to make toys safer through legislation, lead, phthalates, and other chemicals commonly linked to PVC and other plastics used to make toys persist. The broad use of chemical and metal additives to plastics — including paints — used in toys keep children in harm’s way.

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