When one-year-old Jessica's tiny thumbs hit the buttons on her toy mobile phone, the purple lump of plastic goes beep-beep-beep, just like the real thing. Shaking it to and fro, the girl's eyes light up and she gurgles in approval.
Nothing groundbreaking here – babies like toys – but this one's a bit different. For one thing, it was designed by Jessica's father, Sim Oram, the founder and boss of Somerset toy firm Russimco.
It's also cleverer than your average plaything, because the batteries in Jessica's electric "eco-phone" are not only "not included" – they aren't even required; she might not realise it, but just by shaking her phone, Jessica is generating the electricity that powers it.
An electric toy without batteries? It sounds implausible; these days it seems every remote-control helicopter and robot guinea pig we wrap for Christmas or a birthday needs an expensive pack of double-As. But, unsurprisingly, these little cylinders of toxic chemicals are anything but green.
Toys account for a significant share of the near one billion batteries UK consumers get through each year. Less than 2 per cent are recycled; every year, an estimated 22,000 tons (equivalent to more than 100 jumbo jets) of household batteries end up in landfill, where their toxic entrails can leak out.
What's more, batteries are woefully inefficient power sources, requiring 50 times more energy to make than they generate.
It was figures such as these that inspired toy maker Sim Oram to branch out. For 15 years, Russimco, which Oram, 42, runs with co-director Richard Bowman, has knocked out millions of retro games your granny might have enjoyed (anyone for Flipping Fishes?) and toys made from sustainable wood. But however much parents like hand-made fire engines and alphabet jigsaws, colourful plastic, flashing lights and whizzy sounds can prove irresistible to kids.
"Whether we want them to or not, kids enjoy playing with something like a mobile phone," Oram says from his office-cum-playroom in a converted coach house in Chilton Polden (population: 700). "We wanted to make green versions of the tried and tested toys kids know and love."
Going green first meant ditching batteries, so Oram had to look to alternative sources of power. Inspiration came in the form of Trevor Bayliss, the inventor of the successful wind-up radio. "I was driving around Devon on a rainy holiday with my family, when I heard Trevor on the radio talking about how his radios had saved so many lives in Africa just by giving people access to education," Oram says. "It dawned on me that the same technology could be applied to toys, which for decades have had a wind-up element."
Oram's next task was to take the mechanisms that power traditional wind-up cars and plunge-powered spinning tops and make them produce light, sound, and movement. A couple of years on, Russimco recently unveiled its Ecotronic range at the London Toy Fair.
The toys look like anything you might spot at Hamleys, but closer inspection reveals one big difference: there is no battery compartment or fiddly cover that requires a miniature screwdriver to open (who has one of those, anyway?)
Oram and his team have achieved this by fine-tuning age-old technology. The wind-up eco-duck, for example, is a glorified dynamo like those that used to power the lights on old bicycles. Cranking the handle immediately starts powering the toy, whose chunky buttons play nursery rhymes and cause lights to flash.
Jessica's purple phone does away even with the handle, thanks to technology developed by the physicist Michael Faraday more than 150 years ago. Inside the toy, a magnet scoots up and down a tube wrapped in a coil of copper wire when the phone is shaken. The movement creates a current in the coil, which powers low-energy LED lights via a capacitor, or storage device.
Russimco's toys seem to be a hit with kids and retailers, but Oram is worried the £2.2bn-a-year industry will resist the second prong of his attack on un-green toys: packaging. Every year, the pile of detritus that follows present opening seems to grow as manufacturers devise ever more elaborate boxes. The reason for all the wire ties, moulded plastic, and boxes an origami master would struggle to fashion, is simple – toy makers want their products to stand out on the shelves. But Oram says neither the environment nor the consumer benefits. "I've got four children and have marvelled at the way toy companies have invested so much in designing packaging that's impossible to get into. And I know I'm not alone," Oram says. "And then you look at the waste involved."
Over the Christmas period, toys bought in the UK produce an astonishing 800,000 tons of packaging, a tiny percentage of which is recycled. In many cases, the dimensions of packaging are 80 per cent higher than that of the toys inside.
Oram's solution is 100 per cent biodegradable pulp boxes – a kind of refined version of the classic egg box – with a colour-printed, paper sleeve. The box is only big enough to contain and protect the toy, saving a third of the cost and space of traditional packaging. "You also save on the packaging used to ship the products," Oram says, "And if you want to throw it on the compost, you'll be left with a pulpy smudge as soon as it gets wet."
But Oram is worried the toy industry, which is dominated by bottom-line-obsessed behemoths such as Hasbro and Mattel, might not be ready to embrace such a radical re-design. "I think it's the biggest gamble because retailers don't want to upset customers," he says. "But they need to start thinking about it and realise that maybe it's what we want."
But Bowman says Oram's fears have not been borne out. "The retailers we have spoken to so far have said our packaging is just right for the product, and the message we're trying to send."
So if the industry is ready to embrace Russimco's green ethos, why has it lagged so far behind when it comes to greening up its act? The British Toy and Hobby Association, which represents the industry in the UK, failed to return calls from The Independent, but Richard Bowman says the reason is simple. "It comes down to cost," he says. "It's a cut-throat industry that deals in pennies. Going green does tend to cost a bit of money, and none of the big guys have been willing to pay."
That could be about to change. Diane Lees, director of the V&A Museum of Childhood in London, says it is about time: "There's a huge demand from our audience, who are incredibly interested in green issues in general, for greener toys. We encourage toy designers to come up with good designs, and that fits very well with the green agenda. I'm very impressed with Russimco's new range. There's very little new in design, but the philosophy behind the toys is."
Oram admits that, for now at least, greener toys do cost more. To try to stay competitive, Russimco gets its toys made in China, where Oram regularly visits factories to check conditions and pay. "We only buy from factories we are satisfied with," he says. But even with cheap manufacturing, Ecotronic toys cost up to 20 per cent more than standard toys – the toys are priced from four pounds to £20. "But just think of the money you'll save on batteries," he says.
Reduce the impact of your toys
Many local authorities run toy libraries – take one out your child likes the look of, and take it back when they get bored of it. Contact the National Association of Toy and Leisure Libraries to find out if there's one near you: www.natll.org.uk; 020-7255 4600.
More than 90 per cent of our batteries end up in landfill, where the chemicals inside them can leak out. Several organisations offer battery-recycling services that dispose of batteries safely. For more information, visit www.wrap.org.uk.
Some manufacturers use over-sized boxes to make their toys look good on the shelf, but some of them use packaging 80 per cent larger than the toys they contain. Show your disapproval by picking toys in simple boxes.
Henry BrennanReuse content