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Building toys that children will put in their mouths

When Robert von Goeben analyzed potential materials for new product lines at California’s Green Toys Inc. he thought about demand for organic food.

“People want safety,” said von Goeben. “Our customers aren’t children. They’re parents. And parents look at toys the way they look at food. They want to know what’s in it and where it comes from.”

Von Goeben, president of the Mill Valley toy company that exports to 50 countries and is growing more than 65 percent per year, ultimately selected plastics and colorants safe for any childhood behavior. “You know the toys you give your children to play with will most likely end up in their mouths, so we made sure they were safe,” he said.

Green Toys, launched in 2007, built its reputation with safe products and a rigorous process of analyzing alternative materials. More and more reputable companies do this as part of product development. They identify new combinations of ingredients to make their products safer, eliminate certain chemicals or reduce energy impacts.

“We tried 15 different plastic resins before we landed on high-density polyethylene (HDPE),” von Goeben said. A September 2010 case study by the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production describes how Green Toys became the first U.S. company to use HDPE from recycled milk jugs as its primary source material. The material proved more durable and easier to recycle, the study says, than the company’s initial choice of a bio-based plastic called polylactic acid.

Finding safe toy colors required the company’s own alternatives analysis.

“One thing we were adamant about was not using paints in our products,” said von Goeben. “We needed a material that we could produce bright, colorful products without having to use paints and dyes.” Von Goeben researched an array of alternatives and pigments, finally grilling chemists about their materials until satisfied they contained no lead or chromium.

DTSC’s draft Safer Consumer Product Regulations aim to make less motivated companies similarly analyze their ingredients. DTSC’s goal is safer consumer products that contain fewer toxic chemicals.

At Green Toys, a careful approach to ingredients has paid dividends, rewarding the toymaker with steady growth and new product lines. Recalls of other imported toys and children’s products containing lead and cadmium only heightened the popularity of toys that have weathered an arduous analysis of potential materials.

In a world of often-secret ingredients, Green Toys says it hasn’t any.

“We’re believe in full transparency about our ingredients,” said von Goeben. “We’re confident that builds trust.”