Rainbow Loom is the runaway hit of this holiday season. The jewelry-making kit and its accessories occupy several top spots on Amazon’s list of best-selling toys. Inventor Cheong-Choon Ng, who quit his job as a crash-test engineer at Nissan last year to manage the company, has sold more than 3 million looms. That’s one loom for every seven American children between the ages of 4 and 8 (the recommended age range for the toy). The loom recently achieved the true mark of toy success: Several schools have banned the product because it was distracting kids.
When I was young, few people asked about the environmental impacts of, say, Cabbage Patch Kids or He-Man figurines. For better or for worse — I’d say for better — environmental questions are now raised about every product. So how does the Rainbow Loom affect the planet?
It’s difficult to apply the standard environmental assessment to the Rainbow Loom. The materials are fairly lightweight, and the product doesn’t consume any energy once in the hands of consumers. Small toy companies rarely conduct environmental impact assessments of their products’ greenhouse-gas or particulate-matter emissions. However, concerns have been raised recently over the environmental costs of making natural rubber. Surging demand has spurred the development of new plantations in East Asia, and activists have pointed to air and water pollution from the production process, leading the industry to initiate a voluntary sustainability certification program.
Rainbow Loom uses non-latex rubber, which means the bands are a synthetic product made largely from silicone. Synthetic materials require less land to produce, but they aren’t renewable, as natural rubber is. In the end, neither is definitively superior to the other.
The main environmental issue is that any form of stretchy band is a danger to small animals. Some veterinarians have treated dogs and cats with severe vomiting or diarrhea caused by ingesting one or more loom bands. If the animal swallows several bands, an intestinal blockage can form, a problem that can become fatal without surgery. Cats, which have smaller digestive passages, are particularly vulnerable. The bands are also difficult to spot on an X-ray , making diagnosis a challenge.
Wildlife can experience the same effects from elastic bands, although there haven’t been reports of Rainbow Loom affecting wild animals. Ducks are among the most vulnerable creatures, with the bands getting wrapped around their beaks or necks. (It’s counterintuitive that a tiny rubber band could hold an animal’s mouth shut, but many creatures’ jaws close with more power than they open. The most famous example is the crocodile; its jaw closes with 3,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, but a thick rubber band can hold it shut.) The animals sometimes ingest the bands, which can cause problems as they pass through the digestive tract.
The United Kingdom experienced a rubber-band-related outcry two years ago, when the Royal Mail revealed that it uses 2 million rubber bands each day. A troubling number of the bright red bands have been improperly disposed of, and British volunteers picked up 13,000 from the ground and sent them to the national mail service’s headquarters in protest. Wildlife activists have documented several cases of damage to wildlife caused by rubber bands, including some saddening pictures of hedgehogs killed by the bands. The animals aren’t endangered in the British Isles, but the British Hedgehog Preservation Society estimates that the population has declined from 30 million to fewer than 1.5 million in the last 60 years. (To be clear, habitat changes, decline in the hedgehog’s prey and automobiles probably account for most of the loss, but, if the population declines much further, deaths from improperly discarded waste could become significant.)
I’d prefer to think of these environmental impacts as an opportunity rather than a danger.
Many of the planet’s challenges are difficult for a child to understand. You can’t see greenhouse gases, and even adults have trouble appreciating the enormity of climate change. (Some have more trouble than others.) The ozone layer is invisible and distant, and few American children can mentally connect their hamburger to deforestation in the Amazon. Rubber bands, on the other hand, provide a very concrete example of how a single person’s actions can affect the natural world. A child can appreciate what it’s like to have something caught in your throat and why that might be dangerous for a cat, a duck or a hedgehog.
You can teach your children the importance of throwing elastic bands into the trash can, and the value of snipping them open before discarding them. Make that your child’s first act of environmentalism, and maybe it will be the beginning of a lifetime of good habits.