Old toys spark new joy
Words by Philip Mak
Photography by ecoBirdy
Playing helps children develop their heads and hearts, inspiring their imaginations and teaching skills that will benefit them long after they become grown-ups. While we cherish these magical moments, 90 percent of young kids’ toys are made of plastic that takes generations to decompose. Little one’s tastes change and grow as fast as they do, so where do all those playthings go?
ecoBirdy took flight last year with a simple, sustainable concept: transforming discarded plastic toys into fun(ctional) children’s furniture that is equal parts covetable and conscious. The Antwerp-based company was born of Vanessa Yuan’s and Joris Vanbriel’s creativity and curiosity. Their respective careers in international design and fashion had given them not only a synergistic appreciation for plastic as a material, but an awareness for the growing environmental concern.
Over the course of an in-depth two-year study, Yuan and Vanbriel found that toys use plastic more intensively than other consumer goods. To put that into context, the average plaything is made with the equivalent of 500 bottle caps. Children also tend to outgrow their toys in six months and 80 percent of them subsequently end up in landfills, incinerators or the ocean.
“While we do not have children of our own, we have empathy for future generations and want people who come later to have the same comfortable life we do,” says Vanbriel.
For conscious adults, plastic has become an extremely real boogeyman — a mercurial monster made of bottles and bags found floating in the Pacific or 90 percent sea birds’ stomachs. When the global zeitgeist was starting to buzz about the problem, Yuan and Vanbriel were already working on their solution.
“Plastic itself is not bad — we think it’s one of humanity’s greatest inventions. The problem is when we started using it a lot, we didn’t think about post-consumption,” says Yuan.
“As designers, plastic is a very versatile, flexible material. You can make beautiful products out of plastic and the material is all around us; we saw an opportunity to reuse the old to create something new,” explains Vanbriel.
How ecoBirdy takes plastic to fantastic
ecoBirdy upcycles plastic from toys and uses it as a tool to teach sustainable values and the principles of circular economics — both to children and their parents. Playthings are sourced and sorted entirely in Europe, collected from either designated bins in schools or recycling plant partners. They are then manually checked for batteries and textiles at a facility employing individuals with mental disabilities, helping to give back to the community.
Approved toys get ground into flakes before being sorted by color using near-infrared (NIR) separation, quality control tested and combined into furniture. What was once waste becomes clean and pure through a process entirely unique to ecoBirdy. The finished products are silky smooth, safe and have a speck-tacular finish that can range from eggshell to terrazzo.
Having a positive impact on future generations — today
The brand has launched with four hero products: Charlie Chair, Luisa Table, Rhino Lamp and Kiwi Container. Each is made of ecothylene®, a material developed by ecoBirdy using a system of separating recycled materials by color — innovating a trademarked process that eliminates the need for additional pigments or harmful chemicals.
"Every item is not only stylish, but a story; the individual flecks of colored plastic are clearly identifiable as recycled toys in a visual narrative so simple and beautiful that a child could understand it."
Every item is not only stylish, but a story; the individual flecks of colored plastic are clearly identifiable as recycled toys in a visual narrative so simple and beautiful that a child could understand it. The Charlie Chair has become ecoBirdy’s most popular item, with one in the permanent collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
To educate and positively influence tomorrow’s decisionmakers, ecoBirdy has also developed a limited edition kid’s book and school program to teach little ones about the huge impact their choices can have. And once they have learned from, loved and long outgrown their furniture, it can be fully recycled and find a third life.
While plastic may take many lifetimes to decompose, Yuan and Vanbriel have found a way to teach future generations not only how to look at it sustainably, but positively. And they’re just getting started. They have set a goal of recycling 250,000 kilograms of plastic toys with ecoBirdy and joining a global community of like-minded creators and consumers on GOODEE will bring them even closer to reaching it.
"Good design should not only look beautiful, but have a positive impact on the world."
Speaking on GOODEE’s values, Yuan notes, “Good design should not only look beautiful, but have a positive impact on the world.”
To paraphrase an old saying, ecoBirdys of a feather flock together. United, we can work hard toward our collective goals — and play hard, too.
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