How to recycle toys

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How to recycle toys

Our eldest child has a generous collection of toys. 99% of them have been passed onto us from older cousins, friends, and picked up secondhand (Op Shop, Facebook Marketplace and eBay). They mainly consist of anything with a wheel. My feet have stepped on a fair few matchbox cars in the past few years. Ouch!

The reality of choosing only secondhand toys is they have been pre-loved and pre-played, meaning the toys can be very close to breaking by the time we get to them. Notably toys picked up from Op Shops are the ones close to becoming landfill.

My guess is some people feel guilty about putting toys in the bin, so they choose to pass slightly cracked or chipped toys onto Op Shops for one more play. I get it. I used to do it with clothes. Recent research found 80% of children’s toys in the global north are going to landfills, incinerators, or the ocean.

The material a toy is made with and its original quality plays a part in the longevity too. I try to repair as much as possible but sadly the bulk of toys are designed and manufactured without repairing or Extended Producer Responsibility.

Metal toys can withstand longer play and are easier to fix. On the flip side of this is parts are harder to find for replacing. While plastic parts can be created using Toy Rescue 3D Printer files from Toy Rescue and with 90% of toys made of plastic this looks like a good solution. The amount of hours I have spent fixing a toy to then have it re-break within a month is more than I expected. You can even read how my local Repair Cafe saved a beloved toy for us.

It does get to a point when some toys cannot be salvaged by repairs and become unsafe to use. In our house this is when we move them to 'the land of broken toys' … which is an old cardboard box I keep in my office. I don't know what I planned to do with them? Make a sculpture for the annual SCRAP Art Show? Before baby number two came along I asked my then four year old while I was organising/cleaning/nesting if he'd like to create an artwork with the broken toys. His repose was “can we just recycle toys? What do you do with broken toys?”

Can you recycle broken toys in the kerbside recycling bin?

The short answer is no

But, the long answer would be: A Councils could accept different types of toys, depending on the material. For example, a 100% plastic toy or 100% metal toy might be allowed BUT (!!) it's best to check with your Council recycling rules first. Just because one Council accepts toys in their kerbside recycling bin does not meal yours will. Any item going into the kerbside recycling bin not supposed to be there will end up in landfill. Always ask. I repeat, always ask.

On top of asking the Council, the manufacture should be providing this information too. After-all they produced them and should create a system for recycling or disposal themselves. I have contacted out to two toy suppliers in the past asking how to repair and recycle their toy cars with no luck.

Let's find out how to recycle plastic, metal and wooden toys.

Are there special drop off points to recycle toys?

Big W offer Toy's for Joy a joint initiative with TerraCycle to help reduce toys going to landfill. Broken toys are sorted and then disassembled to seperate the different materials (plastic, metal, wood). The varying materials are then moved on and made into new items. Any toys donated that are still workable and usable will be passed onto a charity. The Toys for Joy program is primarily for broken toys. Most of the plastic (there are up to six types!) can only be recycled once more into decking, benches, garden beds before it goes to landfill. Technically this is downcycling. 

How to recycle toys
My local Toys for Joy drop at Big W

The Toy's for Joy recycling program CANNOT ACCEPT ALL toys - the following are not allowed to be placed into the Joy for Toys toy recycling bins: books; batteries in toys; board games; wooden toys; Play-doh, paint and slime; pens, pencils, crayons or paint brushes; oversized toys such as bikes, scooters, skateboards; sports toys such as soccer goals.

How to recycle books, batteries, board games, wooden toys, Play-doh, paint and slime, pens, pencils, crayons or paint brushes, oversized toys such as bikes, scooters, skateboards; sports toys such as soccer goals?

Batteries in toys - Woolworths, Officeworks, Aldi have drop off boxes.

Board games - TerraCycle accept these in their Toys Zero Waste Box.

Wooden toys - TerraCycle accept them in their Toys Zero Waste Box. Later in this blog post I explain why we shouldn't compost broken wooden toys

Play-doh - This is not recyclable as it contains plastic. Homemade playdough with natural colouring can be composted.  I found a fun tip to revive it. 

Paint and slime -  If you can't pass it onto someone else check with Paintback to see if they accept kids paint. Sadly store bought slime is not recyclable.

Pens - Officeworks accept pens and markers as do TerraCycle.

Pencils - Terracycle offer a Pens, Pencils and Markers box. Before recycling take the time to clean up old pencils, organise and donate first.

Crayons - Not recyclable. Instead get crafty and melt them down to turn into new crayons. There are some fun tutorials on the interwebs.

Paint brushes - Not recyclable. Instead think how they could be upcycled if they are beyond use. Visit Pinterest, Youtube or a Upcycling facebook group for ideas.

Bikes, scooters, skateboards - Bikes beyond repair can be pulled apart and the metal dropped at a metal recycling program. Check with your local Council or locate a business for queeries. Look up Recycle Fun for skateboard recycling. A broken  scooter would have to be disassembled like a bicycle. Depending on the make and brand you might be able to get replacement parts for your kids scooter. We have replaced parts on our secondhand micro scooter easily.

Sports toys such as soccer goalsTerraCycle have a box for beyond repair and broken sporting goods

Why are toys so hard to recycle?

The mixed components of most manufactured toys, the high volume made of plastics, and designing a product without consideration (or care) for its end of life makes for recycling toys difficult. If we want recyclable toys the change needs to start during the design process. For instance there are a small number of brands using plastic from milk bottles to create a toy recyclable up to 9 times. 

Even if all toys going forward were forever recyclable and repairable, there are still a lot of broken toys bundled up in cupboards and at Op Shops that are simply not. The process to recycle (or downcycle really) won't be perfect for a long time. If it was a black and white scenario we'd stop manufacturing news toys, try to repair and recycle what we have now, and rethink the need to manufacture new toys at the rate we do now.

Should we make everything from wood and other natural materials?

Wood and other natural materials might seem like the best option as they can break down in something like a compost bin. For instance wooden toys are usually simple in construction and are easy to repair but it can also become complicated. We have found many wooden toys are often made of MDF, a wood product made of soft and hard wood fibres mixed with a resin often containing formaldehyde. It chips and breaks off easily. This should never be left to break down in a compost. Paint, varnishes and glue also makes wood hard unsafe to compost or even recycle properly. The above issues need to be considered when it comes to a wooden toys design through to end of life just the same as metal or plastic.  With 50% of the worlds timber still coming from native forests (including some FSC) sourcing were the wood comes from is major consideration. 

The Toy's for Joy recycling program is a helpful option to recover materials and i'm optimistic this is a stepping stone to change and not a scapegoat for the problem at hand. The problems being there are so many toys with many of those designed to break! I recommend this article by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation to learn about initiatives in the toy space to rethink and redesign.

There is enough evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that suggests kids don't need that many toys. Louise Grimmer, senior lecturer in retail marketing at the University of Tasmania, and Martin Grimmer Professor of marketing at the University of Tasmania share that children with less toys are better at self regulation, helps with problem solving skills, develop more gratitude, and improved quality playtime.

I'm going to end this blog post before I go into the topic of how to request less toys from family and friends. Because that's a blog post in itself!