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.

5

By Joanclair Richter

For years, the entertainment industry has built a model of disposable infrastructure: sets are thrown out, plastic water bottles are used for moments between takes only to be tossed (often not even recycled), and eating arrangements are often “disposable.”

Money is tight, decisions are made quickly, and each set is essentially a temporary office: an environment literally cut-out for single-use plastic. So how does one reduce plastic in these fast-paced, budget driven environments?

From commercial and film sets to more corporate settings and film festivals, MovieMind Green increases sustainability throughout the entertainment industry. A central piece of that is reducing the use of single-use plastic (SUP). Because let’s face it, SUP is destroying our oceans and beyond!

Starting in pre-production (reducing waste from happening in the first place), a green set can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of a production overall. Plus, environmental choices are often an investment rather than a cost. In other words, when a production company begins to implement these practices, the financial gains are sky high.

Where do we start?

  1. It all starts with communication. Telling people what to do, or showing up on set as the “green police” is simply ineffective. When people feel that they are part of something, the camaraderie and excitement begins. When the options are obviously laid out and therefore easy to make QUICKLY, why not make the environmentally friendly choice? So signage is key – clear, concise, to the points, not preachy. When people know that they are helping to protect their planet with the choices they are making at work – generally, it’s a win-win. In other words, set up an invitation to take part, connect and be a team player rather than a mandate and a police force.

  2. Water is a human right. Yes, we need it. No, we don’t need it in plastic. Plastic water bottles are a concept that can be gone over a million times and never understood. If a set has taken the time to supply their cast and crew with reusables stainless steel water bottles and water stations, but there is still a case of single-use water bottles being bought in a bind, it isn’t working! Plus, as Director Josh Soskin’s point goes: a set with no plastic water bottles is prettier. So I’ve given you an answer: but an answer that requires research and potentially a bigger budget. Research? Call MovieMind Green. Budget? Cheaper. The budget line savings potential for switching to reusables and water stations is 51 percent (Green Production Guide).

  3. Everybody’s got to eat! On a set, often meals are taken to-go. Maybe shooting is still going on and the director can’t get away for lunch. There are compostables for that situation, sure. And the price difference there is negligible and the options are extensive. (Note: industrial composting is necessary for some of these compostable products.) BUT EVEN MORE – take a second to dream with us of a set where each person has their own plate and set of utensils they bring with them. Set up dishwashing stations and make it a team effort. And that won’t be a dream for long because it IS THE SOLUTION. In the meantime, most catering companies can supply reusable plates and utensils. The savings is on the environment, as we divert waste from the landfill. What about craftie? That station where people can fill up on coffee or grab a snack. Snacks are a nightmare. Chip bags are generally not recyclable. Buy in bulk. Get a giant bin of pretzels – put out a bowl and tongs.

  4. Waste Preventing plastic from arriving on set = less plastic to haul away = smaller waste bill. This is a huge win for the bottom line and the environment.

  5. On Screen Talking about what goes on screen can be touchy – solution? If you can start the conversation without offending anyone creatively, do! Be very careful to not get involved in the story. Can the character carry a stainless steel water bottle rather than a plastic bottle in the shot? The moving image and the entertainment industry has an incredible impact on the way every person sees their own life and their own choices.

People ask why MovieMind Green’s work focuses on the entertainment industry. Beyond love for the medium, we appreciate the audience size, the breadth and the reach that movies have to all parts of the world. Between all the languages and demographics – a message in this industry is priceless. The questions now is whether this industry that has such an influence can show a clean and green method from office to production, both on and off the screen.

Joanclair Richter is the founder and president of MovieMind Green, a Plastic Pollution Coalition member business.

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