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The e-waste nightmare lurking in your kid’s toy box



Welcome to , an ongoing series at Mashable that looks at how to take care of – and deal with – the kids in your life. Because Dr. Spock is nice and all, but it’s 2018 and we have the entire internet to contend with.

Buzzing remote control cars, singing puzzles, peeing dolls, and animated T-rexes don’t just set off major headaches for parents dodging toys in the playroom. They pose a real hazard to the future our kids are inheriting. 

When a toy police car’s lights still flash but its siren no longer sings, it is often impossible to repair and nearly impossible to recycle the cheap embedded electronics. Very few toys are made with screws to enable anything other than a replacement battery. So, if the Mickey doll can no longer do the Hot Diggity dance, you might feel inclined to chuck the thing. 

But all of those tiny circuits and toxic batteries built into the toys end up in a pile of e-waste alongside defunct computers and printers, ancient iPhones, and tossed TVs. 

Once discarded toys hit the recycling system—or worse, a landfill—they can cause fires, emit dangerous fumes, and contribute to climate change. 

Researchers have yet to get a handle on just how much toys contribute to the e-waste stream. But other than overflowing toy bins across the country, we know the toy industry is booming, and youth electronics is by far the fastest growing toy category. In 2018 thus far, the U.S. toy industry has bumped its annual sales by $264 million to $11.6 billion, according to global information company

The piles of tired toys will only grow larger. Each Christmas and Black Friday, innovations in technology bring us new gadgets for sale. The audience for toys is only growing – the middle class in East and Southeast Asia and their are expanding. All while the gadgets and gizmos hold our kid’s attention for a shorter and shorter amount of time. 

Smash a screen, and lead powder billows in the air. Phosphorus and mercury are in backlights of video screens. 

In 2018, 49.8 million metric tons of e-waste will be produced globally. By 2020, households in the U.S. alone will generate approximately used electrical and electronic gadgets. Only 20 percent of electronics overall are recycled.

When toys and electronics are recycled they are physically destroyed, shredded, and segregated into piles of different metals, plastics, and glass. “It’s modern mining, to an extent, where they’re trying to mine the most valuable aspects of the product, and then pass the rest of the product on to the next guy to sell,” says Stephens. 

Yet a lot of playthings made of many materials are not recycled today. Pomsie, this year’s expected Christmas favorite stocking stuffer comes with a comb for its plush fur, has a twistable tail, eyes that light up, and electronic sensors inside it. The cat contains so many different components that the breakdown into the different categories becomes almost untenably costly. 

“It’s not that you can’t do it, it’s just that it costs a lot of time and money to do so,” says Stephens. “The companies who make the toys and the companies who are looking to pay to have them recycled simply look at the price that it would cost to recycle a lot of this stuff and determine it’s not worth the squeeze,” Stephens.

When we put our broken toy helicopters on the curb in a blue recycling bin, it seems as if some magic happens, and the stuff returns to us as new recycled water bottle. But that magic in between is actually a massively complex industry that relies on heavy machinery and substantial human labor.

A Pomsie – a fine example of a toy that's difficult to repair and contains lots of small electronic parts. Plus, it's not likely to hold a child's attention for an extended period of time.

A Pomsie – a fine example of a toy that’s difficult to repair and contains lots of small electronic parts. Plus, it’s not likely to hold a child’s attention for an extended period of time.

Nathan Proctor, the director of Campaign for the Right to Repair, with the U.S. PIRG explains further. “The process of smelting is really dirty, China has banned the import [of it], and there aren’t enough places that can deal with it, and a LOT of e-waste, the vast majority, is not responsibly processed. And the only hope we have to responsibly process this waste is to produce a lot less of it.”

What’s worse, a whole menu of toxic soup can ooze out from the recycling process, explained Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network, a nonprofit concerned with protecting people and the environment from e-waste. The risk of harm varies radically depending on the kind of processing techniques used. 

Heavy metals such as lead are still found in circuit boards. Smash a screen, and lead powder billows in the air. Cadmium sits in some batteries. Phosphorus and mercury are in backlights of video screens. 

The plastic housing of wires on most electronics and circuit boards is impregnated with flame-retardants. “Those are really problematic because when you heat them up and burn them and smelt them, they create some of the most toxic substances known—dioxins,” said Puckett. Dioxins are known to cause cancer and are endocrine disrupters.

No matter how carefully or well-trained the recyclers are, the different materials that make up electronics “are so closely packed together that it’s very hard come time to recycle them to easily disaggregate them without also kind of liberating at least some of those potentially toxic chemicals,” said Josh Lepawsky, who studies the geography of waste at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada. 

“A preferred option would be to design toxics out of what will eventually become waste in the first place.”

In 2012, lead poisoning whose parents worked at an e-scrap recycling center near Cincinnati, Ohio. On the job, one dad crushed cathode rays without being given protective equipment to wear. After work, he’d track the poisonous dust home in his clothes, and would naïvely get down on the floor to greet his kids and play.

“The main story around e-waste we always hear and see is: ‘Bad things happening to people overseas,’” Lepawsky said. “And it does, no question, but that’s a very, very limited notion of the suite of risks and harms.” Workers in accredited facilities in the U.S.  and Europe also face health concerns.

“In a lot of ways recycling is the least worst option, as opposed to a preferred option,” says Lepawsky. “A preferred option would be to design toxics out of what will eventually become waste in the first place.”

Battery-operated toys tossed straight into the trash come with their own harmful baggage. Lithium ion batteries are less stable than old lead batteries, and can burst into flames if they’re bent or punctured. That’s especially likely at a landfill facility where bulldozers and loaders are pushing the stuff around, and can easily drive over a battery and spark an instant fire, or sometimes, smolder for weeks.

“They have fires raging in landfills that can last weeks, and they don’t put them out because if they open up the landfill to get to the smoldering fire, the fire will become oxygenated, and then they’ll really have a problem on their hands,” Lepawsky said. Fires can damage landfills and make them less secure. 

“The solid waste and recycling communities are finding that a great deal of ordinary household trash is now dangerous to handle because batteries are now showing up in sneakers, diapers, dresses, and of course, toys,” said Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Society, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights to repair electronics. 

Gordon-Byrne wants us to fix our broken toys ourselves, and watch out for toys that are legally unfixable. If manufacturers block our rights to fix our own toys, the more likely we are to buy new ones. 

Electronic games are essentially personal computers running game applications, Gordon-Byrne points out. “The equipment is the same, but because of the pervasive influence of the Entertainment Software Industry, our laws have widely prevented legal repair of gaming equipment. So, a player can repair their own PC that runs games, but cannot repair a computer that is built only to play games.” 

Everybody’s got several trash bags full of old toys in their house that have just been sitting there

The Toy Association has been in active opposition to Right to Repair legislation, Gordon-Byrne believes mostly at the behest of the gaming industry. In April, the Federal Trade Commission Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft of violating the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975 for threatening consumers with losing their warranties for repairs made by independents or using non-original parts.  

In some neighborhoods, parents can find regular gatherings of handy people who run a  to fix any and all broken electronics, including toys. 

Parents can also take small recycling steps, like setting up a  in the community or passing the toys onto other families or childcare settings. Pick up used toys at Salvation Army or Goodwill.  sells shipping boxes that parents can stuff with as many toys (electronic or otherwise) as will fit to recycle safely, at a hefty price tag.  

TerraCycle recently teamed up with Hasbro to launch a pilot program. Participants collect and box up their electronic toys and games, as well as action figures, dolls, and plush toys; print out a free shipping label; and send their box to TerraCycle. Hasbro reports that all toys and games collected through this program are being recycled into new materials that can be used in the construction of new play spaces, flower pots, park benches and other innovative uses. For more resources on recycling e-waste in your state, check out this database

This holiday, Stephens urges parents to steer clear of toys like the hot new roaring and snoring Chewbaca doll, and pick presents carefully. Purchase toys that may live a longer lifespan and hold a kid’s attention for years. Make sure batteries are removable and never throw them away. If there’s a similar toy without electronics in it, it’ll probably last longer. 

Sentimental toys might also lead us to a secret stash of e-waste, Stephens warns. Many of us are still hoarding tons of toys with electronic parts in our closets. “The danger of toy e-waste outweighs the waste we’ve even seen so far,” Stephens said. “Unlike other waste, we culturally tend to hang on to toys. Everybody’s got several trash bags full of old toys in their house that have just been sitting there and they haven’t yet hit the waste stream. But someday, they will.”

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