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Discarded Toys Are Creating an Electronic Waste Crisis. Here’s How to Stop It.

Electronic toys are winding up in landfills — but they could be recycled, with better policies.

An employee stocks toy department shelves as shoppers peruse merchandise at the Walmart Supercenter on Tuesday, November 14, 2023, in Burbank, California.

This story was originally published by Grist. Sign up for Grist’s weekly newsletter here.

With the holiday season fast approaching, parents around the world are deciding which new toys to purchase for their kids this year. Many will opt for classic favorites like Lego bricks, Mr. Potato Heads, Jenga sets, and Barbie dolls. Others will choose toys with more high-tech flair — like remote-controlled robotic dogs, light-up drones, or books that play animal sounds — for that tot who loves smashing buttons.

But while modern parents are bombarded with ads for toys that light up, make sounds, move under their own power, and respond to voice commands, they don’t hear much about the environmental crisis fueled by electronic toys, or e-toys.

According to a recent report by the WEEE Forum, a multinational nonprofit organization focused on the management of “waste electrical and electronic equipment,” the world threw out more than 7 billion e-toys in 2022. Many, if not most, of these toys didn’t reach a proper e-waste recycling facility due to a dearth of regulations and consumer awareness that toys containing batteries and circuit boards require special disposal. Instead, experts believe these toys are often winding up in the regular trash, increasing the risk of battery fires at waste management facilities and creating new environmental hazards at landfills. Even when people want to recycle their e-toys properly, recyclers might not want to take them because they are hard to deconstruct and often contain very little material worth recycling.

Ultimately, experts say, toy makers and toy retailers must take more responsibility for e-toy waste — whether that’s by setting up take-back programs for broken e-toys, redesigning toys to be more recycling friendly, or embracing new business models that replace cheap, throwaway toys with stuff that’s built to last.

There’s no doubt our appetite for electronic toys is growing: Revenue from wholesale shipments of e-toys into the United States increased nearly 200 percent between 2010 and 2022, according to data from the Consumer Technology Association. Yet as e-toys proliferate, we seem to be valuing them less. In recent years, “toys have gone from being viewed more as essential tools to childhood development to junk you get at the holidays,” said Krystal Persaud, an award-winning toy designer and the cofounder of Wildgrid, an educational marketplace that uses game-like principles to help consumers learn how to implement home electrification projects. “Which is very unfortunate.” (Persaud was selected as a Grist 50 Fixer in 2023.)

Indeed, the pressure toy makers feel to make sales — particularly during the holiday season, when they earn a large chunk of their annual revenue — motivates them to constantly churn out new toys. Persaud described it as “very analogous to fast fashion.”

“It’s very trend driven,” she told Grist.

One of the ways a toy maker can stay trendy is by giving their toys new capabilities with embedded electronics. According to Persaud, the cost of manufacturing electronic components like circuit boards has fallen so much in the last several decades that it’s now relatively easy to incorporate them into the simplest and cheapest of toys, which is how parents end up with plastic trucks that bark sounds and flash lights.

The problem with cheap electronic toys is that they aren’t necessarily built to last, be repaired, or even have their batteries removed and replaced. As a result, many e-toys will inevitably become junk in somebody’s basement or garage until it’s time to get rid of them. At that point, e-toys “are going to end up most likely in the municipal solid waste system rather than the recycling stream,” said Callie Babbitt, a e-waste researcher at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

That’s a problem both for safety and environmental reasons. E-toys with lithium-ion batteries can spark a fire if the battery is mishandled, crushed or punctured at a waste management facility. Once they enter landfills, electronics create additional hazards because some of their components contain toxic substances like lead, mercury, and cadmium that can leach into the surrounding soil and water, endangering the health of nearby communities and ecosystems.

The reason dead e-toys aren’t getting to the right place, Babbitt says, has to do with e-waste regulations. In the U.S., there’s no overarching federal guidance on how to manage e-waste, which is instead regulated through a patchwork of state policies. In roughly half of U.S. states, the policy is no policy at all. Most of the other states have some sort of “extended producer responsibility” scheme that requires electronic device manufacturers to pay funds into a program administered by state or local officials or private entities. Those funds go toward collecting specific electronics on a state collection list and sending them to e-waste recyclers. Not a single state collection list includes e-toys. “They’re not traditionally part of that system,” Babbitt said.

In many cases, consumers can still drop off e-toys at e-waste collection sites. But Babbitt says that “most of the effort toward actually communicating about recycling” is geared toward items on the state list, meaning consumer awareness about how to recycle e-toys is relatively low. And in some states, like Minnesota, consumers might have to pay a collection facility to take their junk toys, according to Maria Jensen, who co-directs a Minnesota-based nonprofit called Recycling Electronics for Climate Action that advocates for stronger e-waste recycling policies.

Often, county governments — which run many of Minnesota’s e-waste collection sites — “are not supported well enough to afford to collect and send those to a recycler,” Jensen told Grist. “So what happens is they charge the consumer.” While about a quarter of the e-waste Minnesotans generate is collected for recycling, Jensen speculates that the amount of e-toy waste collected is much lower.

Outside of the U.S., different countries have very different e-waste policies. But when it comes to e-toys, a similar pattern emerges globally: These devices are not reaching recyclers. While between 20 and 30 percent of large electronics like TVs and printers are recycled on a global scale, the global recycling rate for e-toys is closer to 10 percent, said Kees Baldé, a senior researcher at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. Baldé co-authored the recent WEEE Forum report that identified e-toys as the largest contributor to “invisible” e-waste, a category that included 9 million tons of electronics last year.

Invisible e-waste, which the report authors defined as types of e-waste with a very low recycling rate based on national data, also includes vapes, headphones, home smoke detectors, and other small consumer electronics. “Basically people don’t really know what to do” with e-toys and other forms of invisible e-waste, Baldé told Grist.

Worldwide, Baldé says, these products are only sometimes covered by extended producer responsibility schemes. Because they are often made of cheap materials like plastic with only small amounts of the precious metals that e-waste recyclers make money recovering and selling, recyclers tend to lose money processing them. “The treatment of e-waste, in particular this type of e-waste, is worthless,” Balde said.

The way e-toys are designed creates additional challenges for recyclers. Whereas TVs and computers tend to follow similar design principles and include similar components, toys come in a huge variety of sizes and form factors that recyclers may not be familiar with, meaning additional time and effort must be spent figuring out how to take them apart. What’s more, many are not built to be disassembled. More than a nuisance, this can be a hazard for recyclers, who may not be aware that a toy with no screws, charge ports, or obvious external labels contains a lithium-ion battery.

Frequently, e-toy batteries are “completely encased in plastic,” Jensen said. “So you actually have to break it open, physically, to get the battery out.” Otherwise, that battery could accidentally enter a recycler’s shredder and spark a fire.

To solve the e-toy waste crisis, experts say that regulators and the toy industry need to step up. Governments could expand their extended producer responsibility schemes to include more categories of electronics, such as e-toys. While this wouldn’t address design issues, it would provide the municipalities, nonprofits, or private businesses that collect e-waste much-needed funding to get these items to a recycler that can handle them. Toy manufacturers, or big box retailers like Walmart and Target, could serve as collection points for old e-toys, similar to how Best Buy stores collect a variety of consumer electronics and appliances for recycling. Persaud, the toy designer, suspects that retailers setting up e-toy take-back programs “would be the fastest” way to start collecting dead toys en masse.

The Toy Association, an industry group whose members account for 93 percent of toy and game sales in the U.S., didn’t respond to Grist’s request for comment.

In the longer term, design standards focused on longevity and repairability could slow the tide of waste by ensuring e-toys are built to last longer. The European Union recently adopted a new regulation that requires manufacturers of portable electronics to make their products’ batteries removable — an important first step. Baldé wants to see the bloc go much further. “We need more policy interventions to simply ban these products that don’t have a minimum guaranteed lifespan or can’t be repaired,” he said.

Finally, we all need to reframe our relationship with toys and stop treating them as disposable. While consumers can’t solve this problem alone, we can all be more mindful about the type and quantity of toys we buy. Parents, Persaud suggests, can ask friends and family for the type of toys they want their children to receive, perhaps requesting e-toys only when the electronics give the toy “a superpower that wasn’t there before.” Or they can stick to secondhand, analog, or even homemade toys made of highly recyclable materials like wood.

Persaud emphasized that kids, especially young children, don’t need their toys to have interactive buttons and light-up features in order to have fun with them. “There’s a lot of things you can do without [the toy] being electronic,” Persaud said. “Just with blocks, with paper. You can really play with anything.”

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