How one LA toymaker is tackling the country’s plastic waste problem

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The mid-20th century was something of a renaissance for plastic, a miracle material that weaved its way into hygienic medical products, synthetic fabrics, and endless throwaway goods.

Now in the 21st century, it can be found in storm drains, rivers, and the stomachs of fish. That’s inspired efforts to make it more biodegradable and more recyclable, but it’s found its way into our lives for good.  Plastic also became the go-to building material for the four-foot-wide Barbie’s Dreamhouse.

Charlie Hodges' "Topsy Turvey Teatro." Image courtesy of Charlie Hodges. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But what would this 96% plastic toy look like without plastic? Product designer Charlie Hodges tried to figure that out.

“I learned that there were about seven gases, five plastics, eight metals, four minerals, two elements, and three types of paper that were used for this 27-pound toy that was more or less designed to end up in a landfill,” he says.

He says 1.3 million trees are required to offset the carbon dioxide released from producing one of those doll houses. And the company that creates it, Mattel, says a Barbie Dreamhouse is sold every two minutes.

So Hodges decided to try and make his own toy house out of paperboard and eco-friendly inks. He called it Archamelia: the House of A Thousand Stories.

“I suppose I describe it as the combination of origami and Transformers with a Where's Waldo dollhouse,” he says.

As environmentally friendly as his efforts are, Hodges says relying on paper creates a new set of problems, like durability. Plus for decades, plastic has been branded as the cheap option. And that made it a tempting material for product designers.

Newell Brands makes hundreds of household goods, from baby strollers to Sharpie pens. The company is experimenting with plastic alternatives. But Nate Young, Senior Vice President for Design and Innovation, says it’s difficult for companies to make the switch.

“The consumers right now are pretty sensitive to recycling and green. But they're pretty fickle in that if it costs much more, they're not sure if they would buy it,” he says.

That’s why the solutions that politicians and product designers are discussing involve changing plastic, rather than disposing of it.

Charlie Hodges' "Flip N' Fly Airplane." Image courtesy of Charlie Hodges.(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The answer lies in making it last longer, according to Odile Madden, a senior scientist who leads the Getty Conservation Institute’s Modern and Contemporary Art research.

“We see lots of biodegradable solutions, so technological solutions that assume that plastic should go away. And what that doesn't address is that the plastic is in the wrong place. It shouldn't be in the ocean, it shouldn't be in our storm drains, it shouldn't be littering our sidewalks or our beaches,” she says.

That flies in the face of the solutions that politicians are exploring to decrease the amount of plastic going to our landfills. One of them would require all plastic in California to be biodegradable or compostable by 2032.

“What we're asking is that the producers, the folks who actually have control over the product, to take some responsibility over the end use of that product,” says bill author and State Senator Ben Allen. “Are your products being produced with the mind toward a circular economy, with a mind toward recyclability? Or are they being produced to go straight to the landfill?”

The problem with biodegradable materials is that they require specific conditions to break down properly, and the landfill does not provide those conditions.

As for making plastic more durable, Allen says it’s not out of the question.

“It would certainly involve a culture shift, and right now there is a market that is so based on the idea that plastic is cheap and that it is disposable,” he says. “But look, If we get our bill through, and then the true costs of single use plastic starts to be built into these products, I think it would shift us toward that type of cultural mindset.”

KCRW’s new series, “Wasted,” introduces audiences to uncovering neat solutions to the dirty problem of waste. You can listen to more from the two month-long series here.