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Waste Not
Colombian Toy Company Encourages Circular, Co-Creative Model of Play

Toynovo has created a subscription model for toys that eliminates waste, along with a co-creative approach to play that enhances creative thinking and problem-solving capacities.

More than ever, institutions are highlighting how important it is to invest in future generations to achieve sustainability goals; a 2020 brief from UNESCO and the World Health Organization Centre calls children’s development a vital factor in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. But even a glance at how kids' play remains cemented in a linear economy that makes sustainability impossible begins to reveal immediate contradictions.

The toy industry is worth an estimated $90 billion — including games, it rises to $300 billion. 90 percent of toys on the market are still made from plastics, many of which also contain heavy metals and harmful chemicals. And while toy giants including Lego, Hasbro and Mattel are working to buck this with bioplastic or recycled-plastic toys; the toy industry still uses more virgin plastic in its products on a revenue basis than any other sector (and that doesn’t include packaging).

Childhood is not only a huge contributor to the economy, it also lays the foundation for a prosperous and sustainable society — which, like a child’s brain; needs thoughtful, healthy inputs to develop over time. Modern societies should follow the same principles by enforcing sustainability from the very beginning of human life — through play.

While circularity slowly makes its way into the toy industry, Colombian startup Toynovo has created a first-of-its-kind, circular model for toys that tackles sustainability whilst also encouraging new approaches to play that enhance creative thinking and problem-solving capacities.

Toynovo

Toynovo's platform keeps all types and brands of toys in circulation for much longer and expands access for lower-income families | Image credit: Little Tikes

After 30 years working in microfinance and then early childhood development in Colombia, Toynovo founder Maria Jose Rubio de Hart discovered that inequity is highly influenced by the bonds we form with close figures including parents and caregivers in early childhood. These relationships play a major role in a person’s capacity to thrive and form critical connections in life. After dealing with frustrations around existing legislation and practices in Colombia, Rubio de Hart began investigating the most efficient way to cultivate healthy human development.

“The answer was very easy: It’s through play,” she told Sustainable Brands®.

This realization led her to launch Toynovo in 2019. The company’s unique subscription service offers a wide selection of gently loved toys donated by families, companies and educational institutions; and enables them to rent or buy other toys through the platform for a monthly fee or in exchange for more toys they are no longer using. Users can navigate the brand’s catalogue to find toys based on a child’s age or development phase, toy categories or educational functions.

On the Toynovo platform, parents and institutions can sign up to receive a new bundle of toys each month or over a certain period of time, whilst their old toys are circulated to a new family or organization — extending the life of the toys (toys that are no longer suitable for subscription services are permanently donated to low-income families). Along with the toys, parents now have access to a WhatsApp group and the option to subscribe to packages that include access to educators, nutritionists, therapists and educational materials from the community, at a starting cost of US$3.

Rubio de Hart says Toynovo (which became a certified B Corp in 2022) has been able to eliminate over 40 tonnes of carbon dioxide by extending the life of toys, according to an evaluation by Waste2Worth — a platform that strives to support organizations striving for circularity.

To keep toys out of landfills for as long as possible, the company is also exploring glues to reinforce and renew plastics. In the case of toys made from other materials — such as wood — that can no longer be used, Toynovo sends them off to construction sites where they are repurposed as construction material.

Toynovo’s services are currently benefiting 30 schools, 20 companies and 100 families across Colombia; and the company also works with the civil rights organisation Colombia Cuida Colombia and Ninezya to prioritize children’s development across the nation. Rubio de Hart says Toynovo is working to expand operations to New York to benefit families and children in the US by 2024.

Changing how the world plays

Rubio de Hart says her career taught her that, although recirculating toys is important, rethinking toy design in terms of what is most beneficial for child development is also critical.

“It’s not [only] about materials; it’s about how playing generates quality relationships,” she says.

So, Toynovo is also on a mission to enhance the quality of play — to foster the growth of healthy individuals, who will be inheriting complex economic, social and environmental issues.

Rubio de Hart compares the toy industry’s current limitations to those of many consumer products — for example, in the auto industry, cars are only designed to be cars — which “closes your capacity to be creative and innovative,” she explains. For this reason, Toynovo has developed its own line of toys, called Joynovo — which she describes as an “open resource, because you can paint and erase everything.”

“The idea is to go back to basics: With very little material — like wood — [you can] have a whole universe of game and toy possibilities,” she explains. This way kids are responsible for molding their own play, inventing purposes and rules in order to communicate with each other and their caregivers. This model of play encourages flexible and innovative thinking — which are key to healthy brain and relational function, and for developing the kind of critical thinking skills increasingly in demand in our global workforce.

Play has been recognised as an important vehicle in educating people of all ages. Childhood development stands as a major priority since kids are the next generation of inventors and represent key voices in the future climate debate — especially children from underserved communities. Making the toy industry accessible and a fertile ground for healthy human development has never been more important.

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