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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April 17, 2023 , 8:00 am 5:00 pm EDT

( In Spanish below/Seguido en Español)

In this Zoom webinar, join GreenLatinos and Latinos in Heritage Conservation for a webinar on the nuanced history of Cinco de Mayo. This webinar is part of GreenLatinos’ Take Back Cinco de Mayo campaign. It will explore the significance of Cinco de Mayo for the Western Hemisphere and provide examples of how to leverage this information in campaigns and classrooms. Speakers will include Pedro Hernandez, Public Lands Advocate and Historian with GreenLatinos, and Sehila Casper, Director of Latinos in Heritage Conservation.

Educativo Seminario web sobre el Cinco de Mayo)

Únete a GreenLatinos y Latinos in Heritage Conservation para un seminario web sobre la historia matizada del Cinco de Mayo. Este seminario web es parte de la campaña Take Back Cinco de Mayo de GreenLatinos. Explorarémos la importancia del Cinco de Mayo para el hemisferio occidental y brindarémos ejemplos de cómo aprovechar esta información en campañas y aulas. Los oradores incluirán a Pedro Hernández, defensor de tierras públicas e historiador de GreenLatinos, y Sehila Casper, directora de Latinos in Heritage Conservation.

Photo: Jackie Nuñez being interviewed by the STRAWS film.

During the month of April, Plastic Pollution Coalition invites educators, teachers, and students to dive into plastic pollution and learn about solutions. Together with STRAWS film, Plastic Pollution Coalition is offering free film shorts on plastic pollution geared towards teachers and students with live online Q&A and discussion.

Join us in helping to empower students to make strides in understanding the problem of single-use plastic and reducing its use. Check out the program here and sign up.

The goal of each online discussion is to help students craft individual or group projects to reduce single-use plastic pollution. These ACTION projects can be individual, in their home, or in their communities.

The sessions will be hosted by plastic pollution experts and frequent speakers Jackie Nuñez, Founder of The Last Plastic Straw and Program Manager, Plastic Pollution Coalition, and Sandra Curtis, Director of Innovative Projects, Plastic Pollution Coalition.


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About Jackie Nuñez

Jackie created the No Plastic Straws movement when she founded The Last Plastic Straw in 2011 as a volunteer project for Save Our Shores. The Last Plastic Straw has been a project of Plastic Pollution Coalition since 2016.

She is a part time kayak guide, full time activist, and lives in Santa Cruz, California, where she teaches people of all ages how to speak truth to plastic and be an agent for change in their communities. She has advised on more than 20 local ordinances limiting single-use foodware including plastic straws.

Jackie has a BS in Health and a AS in Horticulture, and has a passion for travel, ocean sports, design, gardening, the environment, and community service. Jackie is a frequent speaker at international conferences, in the press, and was featured in the award-winning documentary Straws.

About Sandra Curtis, Ph.D.

Sandra is Director of Innovative Projects for Plastic Pollution Coalition based in Berkeley, CA. She brings a wealth of experience developing projects internationally at the intersection of business, entertainment, education, science, and health, and uses those skills to expand partnerships, programs, and projects at Plastic Pollution Coalition. She initiated collaborative behavioral intervention research to reduce the toxic health effects from exposure to plastics. As a co-investigator with Child Health and Development Studies, she conducted Rethink Plastic and is expanding the impact of the study with ESL communities, across generations and global communities.

She co-wrote numerous PPC guides including the Healthy Baby Guide and the Plastic-Free Campus Manual. Sandra advocates for applying pressure across a broad spectrum of society from the individual to legislation, EPR, and the development of new materials to solve the plastic pollution crisis.

Her most recent speaking engagement with youth was advising a team of 6th and 7th graders  in Chicago on their entry into the Nat Geo Challenge.

She has a PhD in Education from UC Berkeley and a Masters and B.S. in Kinesiology from UCLA.

Caption: Jackie Nuñez speaks to Teacher and Activist Jacqueline Omania’s Heirs to the Oceans club of 4th and 5th grade students at Oxford School in Berkeley, CA. Photo by Jacqueline Omania.

For more resources on plastic pollution and curriculum for children of all ages, visit our Education Resources.

See also: 100+ Fun and Educational Things To Do at Home

By Stephanie Padilla

When you think of “clean” and “healthy” communities, your first thoughts might not be resources and programs such as mental health, teen violence workshops, plans for affordable housing, etc. You might think of plastic-free or trash-free utopias with crisp and refreshing air, not polluted by freeway smog. We all have different perspectives on what communities should look like. What the beach communities in Santa Monica envision for themselves is likely a little different than those of us who live near the LA River.

Cypress Park, where the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco meet, is a mostly Latinx community nestled in North East L.A. This past Dia De los Muertos, our very own, Mujeres De la Tierra, hosted a Community Procession for clean and healthy communities. Mujeres De la Tierra, is an environmental non-profit organization that focuses on healing Madre Tierra and promotes clean communities using Telenovela street theatre.

Their theme for the Community Altar (learn more about the history, here) was dedicated to the men and women who died defending Madre Tierra. Their names/legacies were memorialized in blue paper, symbolic of the river, with the mouth of the river dedicated to Goldman Environmental Award Recipient, Berta Caceres, who died defending her land and Lenca people against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam.

The event also included a Procession where a Demonio de La Basura (trash demon made of recycled water bottles) marched alongside students from the Sotomayor Learning Academy, Greater Cypress Park Neighborhood Council, Pacoima Beautiful, Hathaway-Sycamores, LA Sanitation Department, Friends of the LA River, and Peace Over Violence. It was beautiful to see the community participate, lead, and be active in issues that are specific to us brown folk in Cypress Park.

Too often, environmental justice is framed as a “one size fits all model”, where NPOs, city planners, council members, etc. miss the mark in addressing the needs of the community. We are talked to/down about environmental justice opposed to having a dialogue about what our concerns are and how we have the agency to determine what we envision for “clean” and “healthy” communities. For us, in Cypress Park, it is an intersection of mental health awareness, promoting youth activism, encouraging garbage pick ups, attending neighborhood council meetings, and connecting people to the river.

I encourage us all to find our own, rivers, streams, lakes, parks, etc. in our own communities and learn how to make a difference for the sake of madre tierra and the legacy of the people who have died defending her.

Stephanie Padilla is PPC staff and a local food justice activist. She enjoys listening to classic disco and hip hop on her office playlist and organizing vegan dinners in her community. Learn more about organizing with a local chapter of Food Not Bombs

Take Action to stop plastic pollution.

Join our global Coalition. 

By Plastic Pollution Coalition Team

“If you don’t want this to be the kind of country that you live in, then do something about it. Black men and women can’t do it alone and it is our health, our rights and our lives at risk. We need you to do more than care. Transformative change requires more than words. It demands action.”
-Monica Simpson, Executive Director, Sister Song Reproductive Justice Collective

The forces of xenophobia, white supremacy, and sexism, once veiled in our global community, have now been unleashed in broad daylight, into our political and social circles. Today, Plastic Pollution Coalition makes this firm statement in support of communities and individuals worldwide:

The oil and petrochemical industries continue to drive our worldwide reliance on single-use plastic. They have invested money to divide us, leading us to believe that as individuals, we alone are responsible for plastic pollution. Yet these corporations are the ones perpetuating inequality, devouring natural resources, polluting local waters, and producing plastic garbage to fill the land. These skewed corporate values elevate money above protection of the land and its people, jeopardizing our personal health and safety.

For so many members of our Coalition, the world can be a scary place. For some of our leaders, partners, and followers, simply waking up and going about the business of being puts them in danger – being a person of color or an activist, being a woman or non-cis, being a person with a particular income or one who loves in their own way. Yet they have dedicated their lives to solving our collective plastic pollution problem. They fight not just for the future of this planet, but often for their own security.

We all deserve safety. We each deserve autonomy from persecution, prejudice, terrorism, and violence in all its forms, physical and emotional, individual and collective. We are right to expect corporations and governments to protect our natural resources, and we are right to reject the rampant, unnecessary system of disposability forced upon us.

Our society has a lot of work to do to learn how to protect each other and to learn to protect and respect each other, through our daily words, deeds, and actions. We must actively work to dismantle systems of oppression that are perpetuated around the world today, sending signals about which groups of people deserve respect, autonomy, and security. Every person is worthy of respect and dignity.

Plastic Pollution Coalition stands and works for all people. We condemn hatred and prejudice in all its forms, and we outright reject any idea that a particular race, creed, sex, gender, sexuality, nationality, class, or wealth level has supremacy or superiority over any other. We stand with those who fight for equal protection of all people under international law and each country’s laws. We are those who fight every day for equal respect, health, and safety for all people on this planet.

Plastic Pollution Coalition envisions a world free from oppression and prejudice, free from systemic danger and violence, and free from the dangerous, violent, oppressive systems of plastic pollution. We actively support any and all groups and individuals working toward that shared vision.

CALL TO ACTION

Are you a member of a zero waste organization in your community? Have you attended meetings to oppose a pipeline? Do you support sustainability projects in your community’s schools or gardens? These are all causes to remedy injustice. Talk to your neighbors, go online, and search your social networks: Find an organization in your local community, and give them your time.

Don’t allow evil to triumph by doing nothing: Be active with your neighbors toward effective, positive change to solve these core systemic issues at the heart of the plastic pollution epidemic.

At the average music festival, each person creates about 15 pounds of garbage every day. The biggest component of that waste? Single-use plastic: water bottles, beer cups, straws, utensils, wrappers, and packaging.

For the past three years, Plastic Pollution Coalition has partnered with Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival to reduce the amount of single-use plastic used. And it’s working. An estimated 1.5 million single-use bottles and cups were diverted from the landfill over the past three years at Bonnaroo.

The Refill Revolution is bigger than one festival. It’s a movement to reduce our plastic footprint on this planet. Check out the voices of the Refill Revolution and learn what you can do in the slideshow below.

Photos by Brandise Danesewich @antimodel and Dianna Cohen

You can join the Refill Revolution by texting “REFILL” to 52886.

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