For Mattel, sustainability starts with child's play

Packaging reduction and composting are central to toymaker's existing program, but company has identified annual savings of 9 million gallons of

Even though toymaker Mattel hasn't updated its corporate responsibility report since its 2009 edition, the company recently reported a number of updates. Among the most significant, especially as toy companies go: Mattel has reduced the amount of wire/twist ties found in its packaging by 90 percent, a strategy that the company adopted back in 2006. That means the packaging for Barbie and all those Fisher-Price toys that your children tear apart on birthdays and select holidays shouldn't require a master's degree to take apart any more, or result in dozens of little scraps on your floor that could be swallowed by your offspring.

Rodney Davis, senior manager of global sustainability for Mattel, said the packaging reduction plan was first adopted in an effort to keep it simple -- and safe. "We started with the idea that we could use much more better material," he said. Along the way, though, the plan to make packaging safer and easier for kids to open gained momentum as a meaningful packaging reduction effort, he said. More recently, Mattel has turned its attention to making the materials within its packaging much more recyclable, and this is a major focus.

The packaging effort is just one component of Mattel's "Design It, Make It, Live It" sustainability strategy, which guides its initiatives focused on environmental and corporate responsibility. That means, simply, that new products designed by the company are increasingly designed with the end in mind. But even so, the focus is on finding materials that not only are sustainable but that are rock-solid safe for children, which, as you know will probably stick a toy in their mouth at some point. Or leave it out in the rain. Or in the sandbox. "The formulations need to be very well-thought out," he said.

Aside from packaging, where else has Mattel made progress or at least thinking about making progress?

Water is one particular focus, and Mattel reports that it has identified different water reduction initiatives where it believes it can save more than 9 million gallons (which is about 13 Olympic-sized swimming pools). Likewise, the company has come up with energy-efficiency plans that it hopes will help save 22 million kilowatt hours annually. Of course, it hasn't acted on those plans yet, but this is a start. Another thing that is significant: these ideas were developed by Mattel employees, so when they are adopted, they have more of a shot of actually working, since the company won't have as much convincing to do.

One place that Mattel has made progress is in the area of composting. The company runs one of the largest compost facilities in the Monterrey, Mexico, region, handling up to 50 kilograms of food scraps from its cafeteria along with coffee waste, paper and hand towel waste. The composting program diverted roughly 15.6 tons of waste from the local landfill during the first year. Davis reports that across the company, Mattel has cut its use of styrofoam almost 50 percent, which helped reduced waste. The company is also using more local sources for the food in its cafeteria which, again, helps cut back on packaging. For example, in the company's El Segundo, Calif., headquarters, the use of non-recyclable materials has been cut by up to 42 percent.

I'll end this post by mentioning one other program that Mattel is supporting  that I think is cool, because I am a firm believer that the habits we learn in childhood are the ones that stick with us for life. This idea involves the company's on-site daycare facility, where some of the parents have started a garden with the purpose of teaching the children how to compost.

This is actually a small initiative, but if Mattel were able to tap into ideas on a grander scale -- ones that help children grasp the importance of "play with purpose" -- imagine the impact.

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