With the holiday season fast approaching, parents virtually the world are deciding which new toys to purchase for their kids this year. Many will opt for archetype favorites like Lego bricks, Mr. Potato Heads, Jenga sets, and Barbie dolls. Others will segregate toys with increasingly high-tech flair — like remote-controlled robotic dogs, light-up drones, or books that play unprepossessing 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 well-nigh the environmental slipperiness 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 increasingly 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 unavailability of regulations and consumer sensation that toys containing batteries and spin boards require special disposal. Instead, experts believe these toys are often winding up in the regular trash, increasing the risk of shower fires at waste management facilities and creating new environmental hazards at landfills. Plane when people want to recycle their e-toys properly, recyclers might not want to take them considering they are nonflexible to deconstruct and often contain very little material worth recycling. 

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

There’s no doubt our want for electronic toys is growing: Revenue from wholesale shipments of e-toys into the United States increased nearly 200 percent between 2010 and 2022, equal 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 stuff viewed increasingly as essential tools to diaper minutiae to junk you get at the holidays,” said Krystal Persaud, an topnotch 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.)

Person wearing red sweater in walkway filled with mostly pink toy boxes
A shopper in the toy department at a Walmart Supercenter in Burbank, California, in November 2023. Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Indeed, the pressure toy makers finger to make sales — particularly during the holiday season, when they earn a large permafrost of their yearly revenue — motivates them to constantly churn out new toys. Persaud described it as “very matching 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. Equal to Persaud, the forfeit of manufacturing electronic components like spin 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 yelp sounds and wink lights.

The problem with unseemly electronic toys is that they aren’t necessarily built to last, be repaired, or plane have their batteries removed and replaced. As a result, many e-toys will inevitably wilt junk in somebody’s vault 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 shower is mishandled, crushed or punctured at a waste management facility. Once they enter landfills, electronics create spare hazards considering 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 sufferer 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 hodgepodge list and sending them to e-waste recyclers. Not a single state hodgepodge list includes e-toys. “They’re not traditionally part of that system,” Babbitt said.

A sign that says "Smart Toys" is seen whilom a exhibit of five colorful toy figurines
“Smart toys” are on exhibit at an electronics store in Ingolstadt, Germany, in 2018. Armin Weigel/picture syndication via Getty Images

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

Often, county governments — which run many of Minnesota’s e-waste hodgepodge sites — “are not supported well unbearable to sire to collect and send those to a recycler,” Jensen told Grist. “So what happens is they tuition the consumer.” While well-nigh a quarter of the e-waste Minnesotans generate is placid for recycling, Jensen speculates that the value of e-toy waste placid is much lower.

Outside of the U.S., variegated countries have very variegated 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 freelancer to “invisible” e-waste, a category that included 9 million tons of electronics last year. 

Invisible e-waste, which the report authors specified as types of e-waste with a very low recycling rate based on national data, moreover 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. Considering they are often made of unseemly 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 spare challenges for recyclers. Whereas TVs and computers tend to follow similar diamond principles and include similar components, toys come in a huge variety of sizes and form factors that recyclers may not be familiar with, meaning spare time and effort must be spent figuring out how to take them apart. What’s more, many are not built to be disassembled. Increasingly than a nuisance, this can be a hazard for recyclers, who may not be enlightened that a toy with no screws, tuition ports, or obvious external labels contains a lithium-ion battery.

A person wearing a gray zippered hoodie looks up at shelves of toys under a sign that says "TOYS"
A shopper looks over toy department merchandise at a Walmart Supercenter in Burbank, California, in November 2023. Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Frequently, e-toy batteries are “completely encased in plastic,” Jensen said. “So you unquestionably have to unravel it open, physically, to get the shower out.” Otherwise, that shower could unwittingly 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 increasingly categories of electronics, such as e-toys. While this wouldn’t write diamond 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 hodgepodge 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 sufferer toys en masse.

The Toy Association, an industry group whose members worth 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, diamond 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 unexplored 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 increasingly 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 increasingly mindful well-nigh 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 requite the toy “a superpower that wasn’t there before.” Or they can stick to secondhand, analog, or plane homemade toys made of highly recyclable materials like wood.

Persaud emphasized that kids, expressly 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] stuff electronic,” Persaud said. “Just with blocks, with paper. You can really play with anything.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Discarded toys are creating an e-waste disaster. Here’s how to stop it. on Nov 22, 2023.