From the playroom to the landfill: DePaul University researchers examine environmental impact of children’s toys

CHICAGO — Anyone who has purchased a birthday gift for a child this summer knows that many toys are made of plastic. Often, they eventually end up in the landfill. New research from two DePaul University alumnae delves into the environmental impact of popular children’s toys. The experience working on the research helped both graduates launch careers in sustainability.

As undergraduates in environmental studies, Sarah Levesque and Madeline Robertson worked with Associate Professor Christie Klimas to quantify the impact of popular children’s toys. Their work was recently published in the journal Sustainable Production and Consumption.

Their results show plastic toys, specifically LEGO, have a higher impact on the environment than wooden toys and even some toys with battery components. They call on toy manufacturers to design with materials that have a lower impact on the environment. Consumers can also be eco-conscious by using second-hand toys or choosing new items that create a smaller emission footprint.

Toys leave environmental footprint
As students, Levesque and Robertson say they were inspired by Klimas’ examination of the environmental impact of gifts. With her support, they set out to complete a life cycle analysis of a range of toys, from Barbie dolls and LEGO bricks to Jenga blocks and plush dogs. This entailed disassembling the products and weighing each component to measure impact on global warming, acidification and other environmental factors.

“During the research, we looked at each toy from the manufacturing phase to the use phase and calculated the impact,” Levesque says. “This uncovered the individual emission levels of each product.”

Findings show that the materials used for construction, the weight of the products and the amount of time the product is used all contribute to their overall environmental impact, measured as carbon footprint and eutrophication. For example, LEGO create more greenhouse gas emissions than toys made of wood, such as Jenga blocks.

The researchers warn of the dangers of wasteful consumerism and caution that every purchase, including toys, carries an environmental effect.

“In America, we constantly overconsume resources,” Levesque says. “If we can resist the urge to purchase new products and perhaps switch to products that can be reused or recycled, we can collectively have a much larger impact than any single person could.”

The two hope their research will provide parents with valuable information for toy-buying habits moving forward. Working with Klimas taught them that there are many ways to frame messages that encourage “conscious consumerism.”

“Some people will tune in if we speak of the economic impact of wasting toys: buy fewer toys or use toy libraries because it will save you money,” Robertson says. “Other people will be intrigued by the data-driven environmental impact.”

Both graduates live and work in Atlanta, where Robertson is a senior sustainability analyst building real estate company Cortland’s first sustainability program. Levesque leads the environmental, social and governance program for temperature-controlled infrastructure company Americold.​

“Sarah and M​addy learned life cycle assessment outside the classroom for this research. This knowledge helped them in this project and their careers. It’s a joy to work with both of them,” Klimas says. “Their commitment to sustainability will help companies and consumers make better choices for our planet.”

DePaul’s contribution to alumni success
Levesque and Robertson cite their studies at DePaul as driving forces in their career success. 

“Faculty, including Professor Klimas, are a wealth of knowledge and patience,” Robertson says. “She fully trusted us and our abilities to champion this research.”

Robertson gained experience at DePaul communicating scientific research results to a variety of audiences, including a College of Science and Health symposium and research conference. 

“In my current role, I constantly bring data to various stakeholders to advocate for sustainable change,” Robertson says. Levesque echoes that hands-on research experience prepared her for working in real-world applications.

“I learned invaluable data management skills and research skills,” Levesque says. “I also learned big data management skills that I use daily, including how to organize and analyze data and calculate emission sources.”

After graduating from DePaul, Robertson and Levesque kept in touch. Robertson, who graduated in 2019, landed a job in Atlanta by networking. A year later, she helped Levesque make the leap to Atlanta for a job.

“We get to stay connected while exploring farmer’s markets and hiking trails together,” says Robertson. “There is true power in your DePaul network, especially if you are in the sustainability field.”