Tunnel of PVC – Shiny, Happy Toy Versus Green Mom

Like any active toddler, Sam loves crawling in, under, around, and through things. Cardboard boxes are a big hit in my house, which is great as they are recyclable, safe, and entirely free.

At his weekly tumbling class he is wildly attracted to the play tunnels – the large, plastic tubes where he can crawl through or just hide out. Since he is such a fan, we thought we’d buy one for our home.

I immediately noticed that these tunnels were surely not eco-friendly, and likely made with PVC plastic – a super toxic, foul-smelling substance that is still widely used despite mounting evidence of its danger. Even if it isn’t chewed on, PVC plastics release an unhealthy amount of toxic chemicals just by off-gassing (i.e. sitting around).

I searched in vain for a non-toxic version of this toy, but every brand was just another variation of the same PVC Polyester. I decided to contact Melissa & Doug, a brand that I have a bit of an iffy feeling about. In general, even when they run into trouble with recalls or questionable materials, they are at least highly responsive from a customer service standpoint. But this time when I emailed customer service to ask about the use of PVC in this product, I got no reply.

Despite any misgivings, I decided to suck it up and order Melissa & Doug’s Happy Giddy Tunnel. And just as I feared, the label read 100% PVC and the whole thing smelled like a shiny new shower curtain (well, not mine, since I use cotton or linen which is safe and won’t need to be replaced from mildew every three weeks).

So what is the guilty green mom to do? I could build my own play tunnel by stringing together cardboard boxes, but it just wouldn’t have the same appeal as this colorful caterpiller. And before it even had a few minutes to off-gas, I found myself allowing Sam to dive into the shiny, fragrant plastic, shouting with glee.

My compromise is that this toy will generally live in its packaging, in my basement, free from idle toddlers except for rainy days when it will be brought out to play. This will heighten the novelty while diminishing our exposure to this funky smelling plastic monster.

UPDATE 2/25/11: On the advice of a reader, I checked out IKEA and I was pleasently surpised to learn that they stopped using PVC in their products back in the ’90s! In fact, IKEA’s sustainability record is pretty impressive for a “big box retailer,” possibly to do with their adherence to the better European chemical manufacturing standards. A full post on IKEA is coming, but in the meantime, I am very happy with my new IKEA tunnel. I was mistaken to assume all polyester products of this nature would contain a PVC coating. That’s why this blog is so great – we can all learn from each other. Now the PVC Tunnel is going out the door along with its odor. Bye bye!

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