The Mystery of the Plastic Mist

I was digging out some of the DCUC and Movie Masters figures the other day and found several of them–particularly Deathstroke, Nightwing and Movie Masters Batman Begins Batman–were covered with that oily, misty substance. There was a lot of discussion of this after DCUC Wave 3–apparently the worst offender for this issue–and in doing some research, I came across this informative Fwoosh post by user BigGuido.

Now, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his claims, but it sounds plausible, and it’s the closest thing I’ve ever read to a decent explanation of what’s going on.

On a side note, has anyone noticed this happening with any MOTUC figures? I haven’t yet, but I also haven’t been checking all that closely.

All plastics are petroleum derived products and as such they are sensitive to heat, cold and UV light. Plastic over time depolymerizes (i.e. decomposes) and becomes brittle and discolored. How long this takes depends on how and where you store the item and what the quality of the plastic was in the first place. Eventually, all of our collections of plastic toys are going to end up turning to crap. It is just a question of when.

The semi-flexible PVC that Toy Biz used for the majority of their LOTRs toys was pretty much standard stuff in the toy industry. Most of my figures have held up quite well, but I am pretty careful about storing them in a climate controlled area. Some of the stuff I have bought over the last few years, though has actually been degrading faster than older items. Most of the JLU figures I have bought as well as the DC Super Friends (both made by Mattel) have had severe chalking issues. This is a issue you run into with really cheap Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). Chalking is the deterioration of the vinyl surface, thereby exposing the TiO2 particles to the surface. The white powder chalking that can be wiped from the surface of most vinyl is TiO2 particles mixed with deteriorating vinyl (PVC). TiO2 is titanium dioxide – a base pigment used in the manufacture of most PVC.

Back when I was living in my old house I had very limited storage save for an unfinished attic bedroom. This ended up being my toy storage area and I had a lot of problems like the one you are describing. Also, different kinds of plastics will react with each other when they come in contact due to the base solvents that are used in polymerizing the plastics. When these plastics interact, melting like what you described will occur. Styrene Plastic and PVC are two plastics that will do this to each other. If the knife sheath was made of styrene and the cape PVC then that could be what caused the melting. The best way to prevent this from happening again is to follow the advice I mentioned earlier and store the items seperately in plastic bags. Ziploc bags and their ilk are made from polyethylene plastic and they pretty much don’t react with the majority of plastics used in toy manufacturing. I believe a less flexible form of polyethylene plastic is used in making the blister and trays that most action figures are packaged in – but don’t hold me to that. It would make sense, though as it would be far less apt to react with the plastic used in the figure.

Realizing that our collections are all going to decompose into a pile of crap is a bit of a bummer, but being in my late 40s (I’m old chronologically, but still a kid at heart) if my collection can make it another 25 to 30 years then it will no longer be my problem – LOL! Seriously, it hasn’t been until the last 20 years or so that toy manufacturers actually started making an effort to manufacture toys that might last longer than 2 to 5 years. Before that, plastic toys were just cheap, disposable items that were meant to be played with and eventually tossed when the child broke or outgrew them.

On a positive note, polymer technologies have come a long way since I was a kid back in the 60s and 70s. UV inhibitors are a major advancement and keep a lot of plastics looking good as new for a decade or more rather than a year or two – of course this depends on the plastic’s quality and its exposure to UV light. Even then, ALL PLASTIC DECOMPOSES. It is just a matter of TIME.

BTW, One thing you might have noticed is that the chalking doesn’t show up on PVC parts that have been painted due to the paint actually protecting the vinyl from deteriorating. Go figure, just like the primary reason for painting your house is to protect it from the elements and keeping the underlying wood from rotting, the same holds true for your action figures. A quick fix for a chalking figure would be to get a can of matching vinyl spray paint (You can get this at most auto parts stores – I really like DupliColor Brand paint) and paint the coat with it (after removing it from the figure). You will most likely have to paint his arms as well to get them to match. Just use 3M Blue masking tape to cover the parts you don’t want painted, and go to town.

DO NOT USE ENAMEL BASED PAINTS ON YOUR FIGURES – it will NEVER DRY and you will have a sticky, nasty mess on your hands.

If spraying it is too much of a hassle, you can always use Testor’s Model Master Acryl Paint and a good sable brush to paint it by hand. I use Winsor Newton Series 7 brushes as they do the best job and lay down a really smoooooth stroke that leaves virtually no brush strokes when the paint drys.

Comments now closed (18)

  • Interesting. I see this white crud on Playmates Star Trek figures from the 90's all the time, especially carded figures from later in the line, like Voyager. It's nice to know what it is, at least.

  • This is very interesting. It’s kind of sad to know even our action figures have a limited shelf life. Fortunately I have yet to spot any degradation on my MOTUC figures. I'm not sure if it’s just my imagination, but I will note that my Mer-Man figure feels kind of brittle, if that makes any sense.

    I don’t have any trouble to report, aside from the aforementioned brittle DCUC figures. Other than my Hal Jordan and Deathstroke, I can’t recall any of my other figures having that problem.

    My vintage MOTU figures were stored in a cardboard box up in the unfinished attic for well over fifteen years. I'd occasionally I’d go up and tinker with them, but for the most part they went untouched. I took them down about a year or so ago, bagged 'em all and put them into a storage tote and they’ve been in my growing mountain of totes. For the most part they are all in good condition. Biggest problem I had was O-Ring breakage with Man-At-Arms and Hordak.

    I'm interested to check my original TMNT figures now. They were in storage up in the attic as well. I took them down from storage as well some time ago. They were individually bagged though.

    Most of my vintage Transformers seem to be in decent condition, aside from the normal wear & tear. As far as toys Beast Wars and onwards, again, it’s just wear & tear. Though a my Robots in Disguise Prime (the fire truck) and Ultra Magnus both have problems with their rubber wheels drying up, cracking, and falling off. But as far as the plastic itself things seem okay.

  • I've had this issue with several MOTUC figures (He-Man, Skeletor, Tri-Klops, Hordak, Webstor), all of DCUC3, several TDK Movie Masters (and those 4-inch TDK 2-packs). I've also seen it develop on figures still hanging on store pegs (Brave & the Bold, JLU).

    It's a big concern in light of Mattel's other ongoing QC issues, and especially in light of their preferred status that allows them to bypass government safety testing. I don't let my one-year-old daughter near anything made by Mattel.

  • I'm curious about bagging and toy collecting… is there any protocol for the type of bag being used? acid free, polypropylene? Or are you guys just using ziplocks?

  • I'd recommend that people avoid using plastic baggies. Apparently, plastics need to "breathe" and if you put the figures in hermetically sealed bags, they can get sticky. I had this problem with my vintage Star Wars figures. I always kept them in a temperature-controlled environment, but they were stored in individually sealed baggies. After about 10 years, they all got sticky. (It turns out this is a pretty common problem with bagged or carded figures.) The stickiness washed off, but it was kind of a pain. Nowadays, I keep them all in clear plastic tackle boxes, which should allow them to breathe easier.

    But I've heard of people who keep their figures in baggies for 15 years and they're perfectly fine. I just wouldn't recommend it myself.

  • yeah, I know that even newer comic bags only have about a seven year span before they need to be changed…

  • The bottom line is Mattel uses cheap plastic on some of their lines. This doesn't happen to many lines at least without it not being a long amount of time. JLU figures can turn white after a week or more. It's sad and gross.

    Setting them outside in the sun will resolve the issue, more often than not though.

  • @Newt: Huh, weird, I always thought UV rays faded plastic? Obviously exposure time being a factor.

  • I know one common problem toys have especially white toys like vintage Storm Troopers and Transformers is the dread yellowing. I recall seeing a DIY restoration process somewhere though.

    As far as baggies or no baggies, I guess your mileage can vary. I do recall now a few vintage MOTU figures were sticky, but they were just in a box, no baggies or anything

    I guess we all just have a predisposition to putting things in bags. Then maybe if they do go in a zip lock bag, its better not to seal them completely?

    Maybe they should make storage/carrying cases for figures like they did back in the day! ^_^

  • Yep I know I've seen a process for cleaning "yellowing" on old Lego I've been meaning to try out on some of my space lego collection.

  • I've been saying for years that Mattel uses ridiculously cheap plastic for it's figures, particularly DCUC. I know everyone loves to complain about how much McFarlane and DC Direct figures break–though I've experienced few breakages of my own–but I can tell you those figures will hold up MUCH better. In fact, most of my 10 year + old Spawn figures still look much nicer than my powdery, gummy DCUC figures. I'm certain part of if is due to the fact that many McF/DCD figures are fully painted, but I'm also confident that they used better plastics.

  • @Dead Man Walking: While I'm not really trying to defend DCUC, to be fair, plastic cost a lot less ten years ago than it does today. Many manufacturers have been mentioning this over the years–I seem to recall it being one the main reasons Marvel Toys closed, and the Horsemen have mentioned in in regards to their own lines.

  • Maybe 6 or 7 years ago at a KB Toys (RIP) outlet store,I bought a Jean Grey figure and a big Sentinel toy from the "X-Men Classics" line (never heard of it before or after). The sentinel leavesyour hands feeling a little wierd after you touch it,but it's OK. The Jean Grey was disgusting when I opened it up. It was covered in some sort of clear smelly slime,I guess plastic residue. Perhaps I could have washed it off,but for 2.99 or whatever it cost,I just threw the damn thing away. Interestingly enough,her stupid robot missle launcher thing that all figures came with in the 90's was fine. I think it was supposed to be some sort of danger room drone or something.

  • I recently found the same thing on that identical Batman. It was in a bin with a bunch of DCUCs in the basement.

    Fortunately, the wave 3 DCUCs that I had wiped that crud off of a year ago were still clean.

  • That's good to know for toys that are 20+ years old, but I've seen a whole shelf of Movie Masters Batman going chalky all over the map… inside their packages. I don't know what sort of crap Mattel used to make these toys, but decomposing plastic inside the original packages within 2 years is just shitty grade stuff.

  • Great post Poe!

    I have seen thus with my Movie Masters Batman figures. I remember there were 'gass-off' issues with these figures causing the 'air holes' to be added to the sides of the bubble. I wonder if this is related as I haven't seen carded figures with these holes before or since.

    I store figures in zip-lock bags which often causes figures to 'sweat' – I've noticed oily resedue on DC Direct McGuinnes Batman/ Superman figures. though I used to see this on vintage Star Wars figures as well, which were in a box loose.

    I haven't had problems with my MOTU collection which are in zip-lock bags until I get a suitable man-room to display them.

    It would be good to know what tips other collectors have for storage?

  • He-Dan: DCUC figures all have holes on the side of the plastic bubble. I remember first noticing them when I got the DCSH Clayface way back.

    I examined my figures, and while Deathstroke and Sinestro are fine (apparently they are from a later shipment of the wave unaffected), Green Lantern is developing the white stuff on his arm. For a while i just thought it was badly painted or something. What's the best way to clean the figure? Would wipes for electronic equipment work?