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World Alive | Founder Amy Holden talks a sustainable twist in the tail for Aqua Dragons

Mon 17 Jan 2022 | 04:04 pm GMT
Rob Hutchins | Products of Change Writer

Amy Holden, founder of World Alive talks us through her new plans for a single-use plastic free Aqua Dragons brand

World Alive, the international toy brand behind the industry-renowned Aqua Dragons range, has detailed plans to remove all single use plastic from its packaging by doing away with blister and polybags this year, to be completed by the end of 2023. It’s a move that will, once completed, will save approximately 14,000 kilos of single use plastic from the range per year. Couple this with the brand’s plans to introduce a new bioplastic to the range for the famous Aqua Dragons tanks, and that will be 50,000 kilos of high carbon footprint petrochemical plastic replaced with a carbon footprint negative, bio-based material. In other words, World Alive is a brand taking its commitment to sustainability seriously this year and next. With toy fair season now upon us, and with the topic of sustainability reverberating through the sector stronger than ever before, Products of Change catches up with Amy Holden, founder of World Alive, to discuss the brand’s wider shift towards a ‘green industry.’ Hello Amy, thanks for talking to us at Products of Change. It’s great to hear about World Alive’s plans to introduce more sustainable measures to the portfolio. Could we begin by exploring your relationship with the topic? What flipped the switch for you and set you on this path for the company? As a child growing up in the ‘80s in Australia, we were already taught about environmental issues including the greenhouse effect, pollution and the damaging petro-chemical and cattle carbon and methane emitting industries. So, I have been sensitive to environmental issues all my adult and working life, and trying to look for more sustainable options in my personal consumption and in product development. The biggest difficulty on this path, is that sustainability options were and are still not readily available or economical, and the later is the reason why the balance has not tipped for consumers. Our company was founded in 2003 with the mission to create nature and science toys, and by 2006 we launched a series of plastic-free planter kits for kids made with coconut-rind pressed pots, seeds and substrate with recycled card packaging called Organicals, Plantanimals, and The Magical Wishing Plant. We also distributed some FSC certified wooden toys. All of these items were plastic-free, lovely, educational, and sustainable items. Unfortunately, the retailers and consumers were not generally as environmentally conscientious at that time and unwilling to pay the extra costs associated with organic bio-based products. It was really disappointing to have to discontinue those ranges as we saw more of the typical plastic and paper, mass market style toys take off for us.
With more than ten years on the market, Aqua Dragons is moving to eliminate all single use plastic by the end of 2023
But you’ve made a decision to rejoin the journey and transition towards becoming more sustainable once again? What has that been like, and what hurdles have you faced? How have you managed to overcome them? Change is a challenge; our society and especially our industry has become very addicted to the fantastic properties and price of plastic, without taking into account the longer term hidden costs to the environment and ourselves. Even the most competent and ethical factories do not have a good grasp on the sustainability concept and will get mixed up between recycled and recyclable, or assume that any product with a component of natural material in it is eco… which is not the case. Over this time, there has been a slow process of learning, not just ourselves but also for component and material manufacturers, our competitors, retailers, and consumers towards valuing sustainability. Now days, no matter which new products we develop, we carefully consider the materials, the product life-cycle including its recyclability, biodegradability, or otherwise end of life. Most toys simply end up in landfill because – unlike other sectors – there have been no recycling programmes put in place until very recently. The programmes that have just launched in the last few years are only capturing a tiny fraction of the toys that are being thrown away, but at least they are starting. In the last few years, some advances are being made in the sustainability area. The most exciting is that bio-plastics, which are plastics that come from plant-based or food waste sources, have become available. It is also now possible to recycle plastic in a way that produces the same high quality plastic that can be used in toys. Previously, recycled plastic was often brittle or discoloured and either unsafe or aesthetically undesirable for use in toys. At launch, these novel materials were extremely expensive, but recently big players like IKEA, Danone, and other big international brands have started to purchase these materials in bulk, which is helping to normalise the prices and expand the production capacity. At the same time, the cost of normal plastic has risen, closing the gap somewhat between regular and sustainable plastics. Over the last ten years, we have created a very successful educational brand, Aqua Dragons. It has won awards and consistently sells over half a million units around the world per year. The Aqua Dragons kits include eggs and food so that you can hatch your own generation of live crustaceans. The idea is for children to take responsibility for hatching and caring for a live generation of these pets, and learn all about their awesome life-cycle, anatomy, and how they have survived to today since the Triassic era. So, can you talk us through the measures that you will be taking? OK, the Aqua Dragons packaging is mainly made of part-recycled carton, but in some cases we had used blisters and some single use plastic polybags. The removal of single use plastic is the first change that we are making and it will be phased out in 2022-2023. Instead, we will use full-recycled closed carton boxes or windows/tray boxes without any plastic where the products are fixed with twists. The boxes will be reduced in size to make shipping more economical to further reduce the carbon footprint and the goods will be produced in both China and the EU, so that the carbon footprint of the transport is also reduced by shipping from the nearest factory. The Aqua Dragons tanks are necessarily made from plastic because glass is not a child safe material and other materials are not transparent, which presents a real challenge for our sustainability objectives. But we are working on an important development project with a company called BioFibre GmbH where we are attempting to make clear plastic tanks from plant waste. We are in the early testing stage, but we have managed to create a tank that is both clear and complies with all the safety and quality requirements that are expected for toys. We hope to launch this to the market first, as a one item addition to the range as Aqua Dragons BioQuarium, then at a later stage, use bio-plastic for the whole range. The tanks will be the shape of a globe with a green base and the products will contain some content on sustainability so our young consumers can learn how sustainable plastic can be made from plants and not from harmful petro-chemicals that require fracking and other damaging processes to be obtained.
From the Triassic period into the future: The new sustainable measures for the Aqua Dragons brand will eliminate around 14,000 kilos of single use plastic from landfill each year
So what sort of numbers and percentages will we be looking at in reductions when these plans are implemented? Our Aqua Dragons sustainability plan in approximate numbers can be quantified in a saving of approximately 14,000 kilos of single use plastic a year, immediately by removing blisters and polybags, and this will be complete by the end of 2023. If we are able to successfully introduce BioPlastic for the Aqua Dragons tanks, we will replace 50,000 kilos of high carbon footprint petro-chemical plastic with carbon footprint negative bio-based plastic.

Wow, that's a big shift and it sounds fantastic. So, how do you begin to design out plastic and waste, particularly within an industry that has been so reliant on it as a resource and basis of product?

Becoming more sustainable is not hard but it does require time (and patience) to learn about the materials and processes available and development to effectively review and implement changes in your product catalogue. For brands who are just starting to turn their attention to this area, the fastest and easiest thing you can do is remove all single-use plastic from packaging.

We have recently launched Soul Mates Kids Yoga, a brand that focuses on helping children activate the body and calm the mind. Within the range, we have kids sized yoga mats, meditation pillows, yoga cards, drinks bottles and books. We designed this brand to be as sustainable as possible from the start and that is a promise which we communicate on our products with the Happy Planet logo and statement.

There are no perfect solutions yet and it’s not possible to simply 100 per cent turn our backs on plastic because plastic has incredible properties that are not available in other materials. It is possible to work with recycled materials so existing plastic is collected and given many lives, or with materials that biodegrade or materials that come from bio-based materials. It is important to see sustainability as a process which will evolve as technology does.

Our first generation Soul Mates Kids Yoga mats were made of regular EVA that has a novel additive that allows it to biodegrade in landfill conditions. However, as we continue to work with manufacturers to develop a sustainable foam, we will soon move to a micro-cellular PU foam that is biodegradable, more environmentally friendly in the production process, and has a lower carbon footprint and better, less contaminating recyclability than EVA foam.

Eventually, we would like to move to using bio-foam in our mats but this material is currently in development. We will be here to help bring it to market as it becomes available.

The Soul Mates meditation pillows are made from 100 per cent recycled post consumer waste plastic bottles, in both the soft plush outer and the polyester filling. About seven bottles are used for each meditation pillow. With Soul Mates we like to say care for yourself and the planet and we are working on many new additions to this range and the constant improvement of the sustainability as we go.

World Alive is well known in the industry for Aqua Dragons, while Soul Mates is a multi-award winning brand, but could you talk us through your Earth for All business a little more? This is a departure from the kids' space, but sustainable product focused it seems...

At the start of the pandemic we realised we could not find masks for kids and those that did exist were all single-use disposables which is terrible for the environment. As a children’s product developer accustomed to making highly regulated products, we took on the challenge of making certified organic cotton reusable face masks in fun prints and sizes for the whole family. This was our first ‘for kids but not a toy’ product.

EarthForAll is a spin-off of that project which is inspired in the same zero-plastic ‘re-think, reuse, recycle’ theme to provide an extensive line of sustainable products for mothers, babies, kids and families who are conscious of the environment. We want to bring easy and guilt-free sustainability to the heart of every home.

Schools are at the forefront of sustainability more than brands and they are imposing that children do not use aluminium foil or cling wrap, bring paper serviettes and so on. Mothers and babies need a variety of products that are usually only available as disposables such as breast and menstrual pads, nappies, baby wipes, kitchen wraps etc that are all products that could be made to be washed and reused instead of disposable, saving waste and avoiding plastic.

These, of course, are not new inventions. In some way it’s almost like going back to the pre-plastic era of the 1950s but with modern designs, and do you know what - that’s OK!

World Alive's Soul Mates Kids Yoga brand focuses on helping people and planet with a sustainable range of accessories

How does being across this space with Earth for All inform the work you do across the other World Alive brands?

The EarthForAll brand is almost completely made locally in Spain, and this has led us to have relationships with local suppliers that are now helping us manufacture more of the other two brands. It’s becoming a big family! We are also working with more channels than just toys now, from pharmacies, gift, apparel, and bookstores all due to the broadening of the brand’s scope.

Apart from packaging and materials innovation, how else do you guys work to ensure sustainable practices are in place across the company?

Good question, and one that I shall break down for you here.

Sales: We help clients calculate order to fit containers or pallets for best economy in carbon footprint.

Logistics: We have opened molds and an EU production site in Barcelona so we can ship western and central European orders with a lower carbon footprint.

In the Office: We are fully digital in our order admin. We now issue and receive invoices, account and back up in a completely paperless way. It’s rare to receive letters in the mail now.

In e-commerce: We use cornstarch biodegradable shipper bags, paper tape and we reuse all incoming cartons.

In the warehouse: We use paper tape, minimum shrink wrap, recycled pallets and we have skylights in the roof to save on electricity.

Additionally, some of our staff are vegans and vegetarians, so our lunches (when we can get together) tend to be along these lines. Super ecological!

What do you think the coming year has in store for the topic of sustainability, particularly in the children's and toys sector?

The Toy sector is finally getting behind sustainable toys as you can see it is a featured theme at the toy fairs. But, the major mass market producers are still almost wholly using petrochemical plastics and dabbling in the occasional eco themed item, rather than centering it in their strategy.

When I see Mattel making promises for 2030 I think, “Come on move faster!”

My hope is that the big brands will start to compete in sustainability in order to accelerate the process for all of us. This is necessary because the smaller brands find it very difficult to get material producers to collaborate with us to make new materials like bio-plastics, because the cost to benefit ratio is not favorable for small and medium manufacturing.

However, for large companies it really is possible to amortise the development costs over the many millions of units they can commit to produce and sell. When the big guys step up and become more sustainable, it will be possible for the whole industry to follow suit and the tide will properly turn and most products will be sustainable; it will be the norm.

For this to happen, we need governments to stop giving grants, tax breaks and incentives to the petro-chemical industry, and instead give them to the bio-plastics and other sustainable material industries. I would add that companies that make sustainable items should have a tax break, this would also speed up the process.

World Alive believes that real toy industry change will be led by the larger companies making it more accessible for all

Amy, this has been a very interesting and very in-depth talk about what you guys are doing to push the sustainability agenda within the toys space. What's the next step for you guys? 

We have some work to do in consolidation of the new brands though communication and we have a five year program of new items to launch! One of our objectives is to try and make play sustainable by being fun and easy for families. We have the feeling that people feel constantly guilt tripped by seeing very negative and demotivating messages about drowning polar bears and the like, so we want to take a more positive mindset to it.

Taking regular small steps towards sustainability at home can be a satisfying activity to do together as a family project or in community. We’ve created a blog on our website www.earthforall.shop and social media pages @EarthForAll to create a community and accompany families by growing together.

As an industry that is in constant change, with hundreds of thousands of new products being designed and launched every year, we should acknowledge that we are leaders and we are the perfect catalysts for change. Our consumers are children  and their families, who are ever more conscious and are starting to value and have an expectation of sustainability. We can meet that demand.

Just in the same way there have been leaps and bounds in ethical manufacturing, which all good toy brands handle very well, we can do the same with sustainability. As a top down decision we can make it easier for the consumer to satiate their desire to be more green.

I just want to add that I’m the first person who forgets to take the shopping bag to the store, and some weeks our household completely fails at recycling. It’s not about perfection but more the long term intention, over a period of years we have come a long way. I dislike how climate change has become a polarised political position (or division). I think we should just recognise that in the same way we care for our families we should be caring for our environment and put our heart into it and do it as best as we can or, we start fresh again the next day.

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