Sustainable Solutions for Old Toys

Old broken toys in the grass

Mordolff / Getty Images

If you are a parent, you know how quickly your kids can go through their toys. Once a toy breaks, or when a new toy craze hits the market, it’s out with the old and in with the new. Considering Americans buy more than $18 billion worth of toys annually, you’re not alone. As kids get older and their interests shift, a mountain of unused, broken and obsolete toys is often left in their wake (usually stuffed into the closet or under the bed). This fast turnover can make avoiding the garbage bin particularly challenging, even for the most environmentally conscious parents. But apart from putting the old and broken items out on the curb, what other recycling and donation options exist for toys and toy waste?

Donating Is a Rewarding Option

Donating functional toys for reuse should always be the first line of defense. Apart from shelters and child care centers, the most obvious and accessible donation options are thrift stores like Goodwill, which will accept clean and functional toys that can be resold. The well-known Marine Toys for Tots Foundation is another excellent choice, donating any unopened or lightly used toys to families that can’t afford to buy them. Yet another good option is Second Chance Toys, a non-profit that accepts toys at drop-off locations during Earth Week in April and the holiday season.

Broken Toy or Plastic Waste?

Broken toys can be especially challenging to sustainably dispose of, as thrift stores and donation programs will not accept them. This can be troubling when you consider that more than 40% of the toys gifted to kids during the holiday season alone are broken by spring. To make matters worse, approximately 90% of toys on the market are made out of plastic.

In fact, according to research done by the Plastic Disclosure Project, the toy industry has the highest “plastic intensity” of any other sector in the consumer goods market. The study concluded that toy manufacturers have a “value at risk” of 3.9% of annual revenue, or the percentage of annual revenue that would be required to mitigate the environmental damage caused by their use of plastic.

Toy Recycling Options

Pile of plastic toys
romana klee / Flicker / CC BY-SA 2.0

Until recently, recycling options for broken and unusable toys have been difficult to come by. While many broken electronic toys can be recycled by state-operated e-waste recycling initiatives, options for other broken toys can be extremely limited. Even so, there are indeed ways to avoid the landfill. For example, TerraCycle recently partnered with Tom’s of Maine for Earth Month to help families around the country recycle their old and broken toys that can’t be donated. During the program, five hundred boxes of broken toys will be diverted from landfills and recycled into plastic products like park benches.

Broken toys may be recyclable by your municipal program, but only if it accepts the plastic resins the toys are made of. The problem with this, obviously, is that toys are made with a wide variety of plastics. Polyvinyl chloride (#3, PVC), polypropylene (#5, PP), and polystyrene (#6, PS) are only a few of the most common resins frequently used by toy manufacturers. Even if the toy has an identifiable resin identification code, municipalities vary greatly in their ability to accept certain plastics; some have started collecting polypropylene, for example, while others still only accept the most common (PET and HDPE). Check with your local program before putting broken plastic toys in your curbside blue bin.

Children can go through their toys rapidly, making the trash bin a tempting way to remove all the clutter. Being sure you are responsibly discarding those old and broken toys can be a great way to further reduce your family’s environmental footprint.