Playmobil was a staple of my childhood. At one point we had a whole village of homes and shops made out of shoeboxes, all populated by colourful plastic families.
As an adult, I discovered that Playmobil owes its origins to an oil crisis. In the 1970s, German toy firm Geobra Brandstatter was best known for ride-on toys, but found itself struggling with higher prices for plastic. As a response, the lead designer created something smaller, with lots of play potential and scaled to the size of a child’s hand. They have been making Playmobil figures ever since.
Playmobil figures have always been admirably durable. Some bits and pieces from my own toybox have been passed down a generation, and still get played with over 30 years later. But plastic is still plastic, and this year Playmobil are launching something a little different, and releasing their first figures made from sustainable materials.
Their new range of collectable baby animals, called Wiltopia, are made from post-consumer recycled plastic, mixed with smaller amounts of bio-plastic. For the former, they have worked in partnership with a circular economy company called Coolrec. Coolrec’s speciality is recycling fridges, which are notoriously difficult to dispose of safely.
Coolrec take in fridges that have reached the end of their useful lives. The gases are carefully removed – this is the important bit, because fridges contain greenhouse gases that need specialist processing. Then the fridges are basically shredded and the materials sorted into metals, plastic and insulation foam.
The plastic flakes are refined and processed into pellets, which Playmobil uses as a feedstock for their toys, with no loss of quality or durability. Sustainable plastics are only in use in this sub-range at the moment, though more sets are apparently on the way.
With the product being released at the same time as another round of high oil prices, I’d be interested to know what the cost difference is between virgin plastics and recycled materials at this point. It may turn out to be a timely innovation.
There is another reason why I wanted to mention this story. If you have children of a certain age, this is a really useful opportunity to talk about sustainability. Order one of the sets. Talk about it. Compare what it’s made from with the hard white plastic in the fridge. Explain the circular economy. Show your children the animated video that Playmobil have made to explain the process to their audiences. Make it normal to take an interest in what things are made from, and to ask questions about materials.
- Want to see what a machine that can shred a fridge looks like? Sure you do, and there’s a video (in French) here.