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A Sustainable Way to Play: Why Toy Libraries are the MVPs of Sustainability

Kaleidoscope Learning has always highlighted the economic and social benefits of community toy libraries. Toy libraries, neighborhood spaces where families can borrow toys instead of buying new, are a great way to save time, money, and build an inclusive community of local families with young learners. As an organization that has an extensive toy library, we know these benefits well and have seen them in action.


But what if we told you that there are even more benefits of toy libraries, and these benefits create a larger impact outside of your home?


The sustainability movement was born from people concerned about their personal impact on the Earth. As we continue to learn and understand the effects of climate change on the planet, many people have decided to take an eco-minded initiative at a personal, household, community, and grassroots level. From switching from single-use deposable items to reusable, or reducing unnecessary purchases and personal consumption, consumers have been making the slow move towards sustainable practices. With this momentum, toy libraries are having their rightful moment in the sustainable sun.


The Impact:

In 2021, Americans spent approximately $38,190,000,000.00 on new toys. The toy industry is the most plastic intensive industry in the world, and 80% of all toys end up in garbage bins and landfills. As we all have recently learned, plastic has a significant impact on the environment due to its lack of biodegradability; plastic breaks down into fine microplastics, which make their way into our water, food, and our bodies.


Beyond the initial plastic and production environmental costs associated with manufacturing toys, there are also emission costs tacked on to transporting toys to big box store shelves and your front steps (hello, Amazon). Most toys in your home probably touched a plane, train, or cargo ship, which have significant emission outputs.


"Consume less, share better"

However, it is impossible to avoid plastic with toys, and the answer is not "let's get rid of toys" (which is an actual solution some environmentalist propose). There is so much evidence that toys are beneficial to child and human development, and plastic, whether we want to admit it or not, is an incredible material for maintenance and durability. We also do not want to seem above plastic toys and the shipment of products, nor do we want to shame anyone who might have these practices. Lots of items in our inventory are made from plastic, and a majority of the items we purchased new for our library were shipped to our Family Resource Center space for easy processing. However, what if that environmental burden was shared amongst dozens, if not hundreds, of members in our local community?


Our Toy Library Practices:

Toy libraries remove a majority of the unsustainable practices associated with the toy industry by allowing families to play with cool toys without having to purchase them new or throwing them away at the end of their life. Our toy library is specifically designed to alleviate time and space burdens families encounter when acquiring toys for their young learners, but our practices are also sustainable in a variety of ways.


Borrowing Items Through Developmental Periods: We allow families to check out items for however long they want (yes, that means no due dates or late fees). Why is this a sustainable practice? Children rapidly move through different developmental stages during the first six years of their lives, and a toy that satisfies them through their short-lived infancy period might not be touched again after they enter the toddler years. The toy's life is then reduced to three options: it gets put into storage for a potential new sibling to use it in the future, it is passed along to another family or friend with an infant, or it gets thrown away. A sustainable way to avoid these outcomes is to simply rent toys and furniture for the duration of such developmental stages to avoid toy waste in the long run.


Reducing The Number of Toy Purchases: Wouldn't it be nice to just not purchase another toy again? Realistically, you will probably buy new toys for your child, but that number could be greatly reduced by renting toys. Select from over 500 toys, furniture pieces, gross-motor items, and Montessori materials from our library to bring home and enjoy. When your child is done playing with one of their rented toys, bring it back to the Family Resource Center and exchange it for something new and exciting. The previously used toy is then cleaned, re-shelved, and is checked out by another family, thus avoiding the landfill. We also think this is a great solution for those who are interested in "trying before buying." If you are on the fence about purchasing a toy for your little one, see if we have it in stock! Check it out for a week or two to determine if your little one will actually use it--no one wants to throw away a toy that has been barely used because it was not enjoyed.


Saving Items from the Landfill: Our library is filled with lots of brand new products, but we also have hundreds of used items too. Donations from families and volunteer-found thrift store finds give toys a second life. In fact, some of our most popular items were found in thrift stores--especially vintage toy items! We also have an arsenal of volunteers who help us repair and replace missing and broken items. A missing chess piece, a broken block, or a wiggly wood joint--we strive to extend the life of every item and avoid it making its way to a landfill. If a toy or game has a broken piece that makes item unusable, we usually store the item to use for extra or replacement parts.

Our space, featuring second-hand items

The environmental good feelings do not end there. Toy libraries offer so many benefits beyond the ones listed above. However, we are striving to adopt more sustainable internal practices for our toy library.


Our goals for 2023:

  • Focus on purchasing new materials from local Minnesota toy makers.

  • Create meaningful relationships with artisan children's toy and furniture makers who are committed to sustainable practices with their operations and products.

  • Calculate our users' sustainable impact by borrowing toys instead of purchasing new (how much water is saved, how many pounds of plastic were kept away from landfills, and how many pounds of production/transportation emissions were avoided).

  • Start accepting donated storage bags/containers (like plastic linen and bedding bags).

If you are interested in donating an item to our library, let's chat! We are a registered 501c3 nonprofit, and any monetary, toy, or furniture donation to our library is tax-deductible. Reach out to Jennie for more information on how to donate your previously loved items to Kaleidoscope Learning (president@kscopelearning.org).





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