09 December 2010

Perennially plastic Barbie dolls live fast and die young

Barbie still looks as pink and perky as she did back in her heyday, and having recently celebrated the big 5-0, it’s worth mentioning that she’s been able to defy gravity without succumbing to Botox or other cosmetic enhancements. Way to go, girl! Unfortunately, that uber-pin-up physique of hers has left Mother Nature up in arms…and jealousy has nothing to do with it. The cultural icon’s perennially plastic construction appears to have done a world of good for her curves and flaxen hair but it’s left a lot to be desired from an environmental standpoint.

Plastic used to be a marvel of modern industry, a virtually unbreakable convenience that cutting edge consumers clamored for. In recent years, however, we’ve become far more aware of how this synthetic substance burdens our already stressed environment. Despite being derived from petroleum (which, admittedly, is an organic material), in its solidified form, plastic never seems to go away. The massive garbage patches swirling in the middle of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans serve as a jarring reminder that once we chemically modify natural materials and transform them into synthetic polymers, they leave a trail of chemicals and pollution in their wake.

We’re currently trying to purge the material from our lives, but there are a staggering amount of products made with plastic and it’s difficult to know where to begin. As we’ve found, zoning in on a few mass-consumed items such as shopping bags and water bottles is a sensible approach since so many people use them and yet still challenging because old habits die hard. As carbon footprints go, the toy industry is certainly a top offender, so what if we put the bull’s eye on Barbie?

Talk about being a world traveler – the lean, mean, flaxen haired, frozen-faced beauty has been around the block and has the carbon footprint to prove it. Saudi-sourced oil is sent to Taiwan to be refined and converted into plastic pellets which are then melted down to create Barbie's soft, malleable Polyvinylchloride (PVC) plastisol head. The plastic liquid is poured into American made injection molds, adorned with Japanese-made nylon hair and finally gussied up with U.S. created paint pigments -- all on Chinese based factory assembly lines.

Barbie's body is created using high impact Acrylobutadienestyrene ABS plastic -- while her waist is made with a very soft plastic elastomer. Both release numerous harmful chemical compounds into the air, some of which are known carcinogens that have sickened hundreds of Mattel factory workers throughout the years with dizziness, hair/memory loss and nausea. I wonder what Barbie's chemical off-gassing is doing to the air quality inside infinite kiddies' play rooms?

Last year, students attending the California College Of The Arts' first ever MRA In Design Strategy program assessed Barbie's sustainability level, taking into account the fact that each doll is designed to capture children’s imagination for a limited period of time (until the next new model hits the marketplace). Factoring in the energy necessary to produce, package, ship and ultimately use each Barbie, they concluded that one doll consumes 3.2 cups of oil (or 1.127 watts of energy) throughout its relatively brief consumer lifespan. Doesn’t seem like much, right?

The real problem is that when a product is designed to be disposable (as so many items in our consumer culture are), a perpetual buy-and-toss mentality is sustained. With 90% of American girls owning at least one of the gravity-defying 11.5-inch dolls in their arsenal, you can imagine just how many once perky cast-asides end up living out their days in landfill purgatory. However -- in the grand scheme of plastic materialism -- is Barbie one of those little cultural vices that’s easy to justify, no matter the size of her globally-sourced, high carbon footprint?

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/vanessa_e, Disclosure: ad link in post