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Why Is It So Damned Hard to Recycle Toys?

The life cycle of a toy is not lengthy. A kid wants a thing, gets the thing, plays with the thing, and then moves on to the next thing, leaving parent to figure out: What now?

My daughter’s passion for the dolls left with a whimper. “I don’t really like L.O.L.s anymore,” she told me as we walked up the sidewalk after school. And that was it. As a parent who had invested hundreds of dollars on those big-eyed, mostly pink, plastic obsessions that I deep-down loathed, I should have been thrilled. No more tiny dolls with big heads that can drink water and wet themselves; no more ritualistic unwrapping of plastic domes sheathed in a plastic film bursting forth with plastic confetti and plastic accessories; no more brain space wasted on The Collection; no more doll Army lying in wait under couch cushions. Nevertheless, I had mixed feelings. For one thing, all the time, money, and effort I’d invested in these toys proved just as disposable. But there was another, larger issue that bothered me: Was I really just going to send all these dolls and their accessories to the landfill? It’s not like you can recycle these things, right?

For the uninformed, L.O.L. Surprise! dolls are part of a toy category often called “surprise toys” that capitalize on a particularly popular YouTube phenomenon where kids “unbox” toys — remove things out of their plastic nesting-doll cases, slowly and with much gleeful chatter, garnering millions of video views in the process. The surprise toys come in beautifully designed containers, complete with confetti, hidden compartments, stickers, and packaging-within-packaging.

These toys are cute and, honestly, pretty clever. But they are, at least for this dad, something of a symbol of American-style waste. I’ve always had trouble ignoring the waste: The disposable cups, the tossed out bags, the plastic things (toys included) that we use for months, days, moments, and then ditch. Those overwhelming statistics about the waste stream? They get to me. How could they not?

Half of all plastic manufactured becomes trash in less than a year.

Nearly half of all plastic manufactured was made since 2000.

The United States recycles just 9 percent of its plastic trash.

91 percent of all plastic goes unrecycled.

Plastic toys account for 90 percent of the toy market and most of these are produced from an unrecyclable type of plastic.

That last stat came to me recently by way of Sue Kauffman, public relations manager for TerraCycle, a recycling company that focuses on, interestingly enough, non-recyclable pre-consumer and post-consumer waste. Kauffman put a hard stop on my dreams that I could simply toss L.O.L. dolls, or any of the old toys spilling out of my daughter’s closet, in the recycling bin. The majority of these products, she says, are likely not recyclable at all.

“The only time a toy can be recycled is if it is made from only one material that also happens to be recyclable,” says Kauffman. “For example, a cloth stuffed animal or an action figure made entirely from number two plastic can be recycled.”

This wasn’t inspiring. As any parent whose kid has a bulging toy chest knows, a one-material toy is a unicorn.

You can recycle a beer bottle, a can of soda, or a plastic water bottle because it’s made of one thing — glass, aluminum, and plastic (#1 plastic, to be precise: polyethylene terephthalate). When these single-material items are processed, a municipal recycling center will grind it up and ship it out in order to be melted and molded back into another bottle or can. It’s simple by design.

Toys are not. Put hair on a plastic doll and it’s no longer recyclable. Embed some glowing lights into a plastic ball and it’s not either. As we all know, toys are usually way more complicated — containing at least half a dozen types of material that, together, represent a logistical nightmare for recycling programs. The very design of a toy secures its fate in the landfill, because no one could figure out a way to undo what has been done. The toy industry represented some $21.6 billion in sales last year, the equivalent of 1,350,844,277 L.O.L. Surprise! Glam Glitter dolls. That’s a lot of landfill.

Recently, however, a select few toy companies have started to take steps to help parents unload their toys with a bit less guilt. Hasbro, the third-largest manufacturer of toys in the country, launched a no-strings, all-paid recycling program last year called the Hasbro Toy Recycling Pilot program. It’s simple enough: Sign up, pack a box (any box) with old toys (excepting batteries, baby gear, or ride-on products), print out a slip they give you, and Hasbro covers the cost of shipping and recycling.

“It’s that easy,” says Kathrin Belliveau, senior vice president of Global Government Affairs and Corporate Social Responsibility. “You have well-loved toys that you want to recycle, you put them in a box and print out a label and drop off your package box. When the toys arrive at TerraCycle, they break down every element of the toys they receive.” What’s more, this month MGA Entertainment, the makers of those dolls my daughter is apparently done with, started their own similar partnership with TerraCycle. Holy shit — you can recycle L.O.L. dolls?!

These sound like great programs, and truly they are, but there’s a catch. Recycling toys, from an L.O.L. Surprise Sparkle Doll to a Let’s Dance Elmo, is not like recycling a can. These toys aren’t going to have a second life as toys. TerraCycle breaks down and separates the toy’s material-type, cleans the plastic, and then grinds it down into pellets that can then be reshaped for use in new, recycled products like shipping pallets and park benches (in a lovely twist, Hasbro has requested that all of their toy recycling end up in kid-adjacent parks and playspaces). So it’s not recycled in the sense that it’s given a second life, identical to its first. Part of the toy that is now going to be part of a bench. The rest is laid to waste.

All of this makes me think of Forky (hey, I’m a parent), the newest character in the Toy Story franchise. Forky is the toy we all deserve. You see, Forky is mostly a plastic spork —  one made from #6 plastic, to be exact. Since that plastic is nothing more than a uniform piece of molded polystyrene, it’s easily recyclable by most standards. But here’s the thing: Many local municipal recycling centers don’t accept Forky and his ilk. Allowing the #6 plastic stream into the system is less cost-effective, and when budgets get crunched often #6 is let go, separated and shipped to the landfill where it will linger for a few hundred years at best. So Forky either gets tossed, or given two googly eyes and a new life.

This is what toys were meant to do — or at least what they should be doing. My soon-to-be two-year-old gets this. He has been eyeing those L.O.L. dolls for a while. Instinctively seeing a window in my daughter’s waning interest, he snatched the blonde one, tore off her head, and brought her with him everywhere, feeding her, singing to her, tucking her in for Night Night. He showed me, like Forky could show millions, there’s one step better than recycling: finding a new, if deformed, life for a piece of plastic. So, thanks to the imagination of a little guy, we might get more than a year of use out of our not-insubstantial L.O.L. doll collection. The rest of the toys in her closet? We’ll make use of Hasbro’s generous offer, ship it out to TerraCycle, and maybe one day sit on a bench that was a beloved toy.

At this point, my family is just trying to beat the statistics.