Hello, my name is Maurice and I’m a second-life teddy bear. I was rescued from a reuse shop by a team of Eunomia consultants on a site visit, and now I spend my days at the company’s Bristol office, enjoying pats, cuddles and tummy rubs. I like to think that I brighten up the working environment, and I’m much cheaper and less messy than an office dog, with a far smaller carbon pawprint.
While the folks at Eunomia do a lot of work on reuse and recycling, as an actual reused item myself I feel that I can offer a unique perspective. And while I’ve fared pretty well in finding a loving home for my second life, my thoughts often turn to all the toys who haven’t been so lucky. So, I thought I’d take to Isonomia to explore what can be done make sure that more toys enjoy the kind of good fortune I have.
People buy a lot of toys. Reliable figures are hard to come by, but the waste packaging associated with Christmas toys alone has been estimated at 800,000 tonnes. Even if the toys have only the same weight as their packaging, that’s almost as much as the tonnage of clothing purchased annually in the UK.
Just how tough is it for toys to find a second home after their owners outgrow or downright discard them? Well, we don’t know exactly, because there’s no official data available on reuse rates for second-hand toys. So, although we know anecdotally that toys are often shared among families or donated for reuse, there’s no hard data on how common this practice is.
There’s also very little data available on recycling rates for toys. One study puts the rate in Spain at just 0.5%, and while this may be indicative for Europe as a whole, we really don’t know. This lack of data is part of the problem, because although you don’t have to measure waste management in order to improve things, it definitely helps a lot.
What’s worse, the little data we have doesn’t tell a good story. EcoBirdy, a European company which recycles plastic toys into furniture, estimates that 80% of disposed-of plastic toys end up in landfill, where many will not decompose due to the chemical composition of the durable plastics from which they are made. One academic study has found that, overall, toys as a group are made from 72% plastics – followed by electrical and electronic components (12%), other materials (11%) and metals (5%). So, what can be done to rescue toys from disposal and give them a second life?
A problem shared
Speaking from personal experience, children tend to outgrow or tire of their toys as a matter of course. While this can result in a lot of waste, it also makes toys ideally suited to reuse schemes and sharing platforms. For example, across the globe you will find toy libraries, which rent out toys for a few weeks, often for a small registration fee – and of course the threat of fine for a late return. It’s just like a regular library, only louder!
While you can find some toy libraries in the UK (we even have one in Bristol), the concept is currently more popular elsewhere in Europe. The Netherlands, for example, has enthusiastically embraced the idea of toy libraries (or ‘Speelotheeks’), and in 2017 was host to the 14th International Toy Library Conference, receiving participants from 20 different countries and all populated continents.
Toy libraries not only deliver environmental benefits by keeping toys in use for longer, but also bring social benefits by creating community spaces and making toys available to families that otherwise might not be able to afford them. Plus, children can learn valuable social skills by being encouraged to share and keep toys in a good condition so that others can enjoy them too. There are even special Social Toy Libraries (known as ‘Ludotecas’) that focus on promoting values of equality, coexistence, multiculturalism, and cooperative development, alongside the sustainable use of toys.
Another innovation in toy reuse is TOYCYCLE, a smartphone app which allows parents to unload unwanted toys and pick up second-hand items for free. Those wanting to pass on a toy just have to photograph it and enter some basic information; meanwhile, those wanting to acquire a toy are able to browse those available in their area. Finally, the two parties schedule a convenient pickup time and location. It’s a bit like Tinder for toys – although I completely deny ever having used it that way personally.
Reuse doesn’t just have to be left up to the private sector either. Municipalities can also salvage toys taken to Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) by householders, selling on those in good condition in ‘reuse shops’ located on site – in fact this is precisely how I came to find myself at Eunomia. Although not all councils yet offer this service, reuse shops are a great way of moving items up the waste hierarchy, diverting them from recycling or disposal into reuse – turning a disposal cost into a small revenue.
Round and round the garden
While there is a lot of untapped potential to give toys a second life, most toys that are neither collectors’ items nor people’s most beloved childhood playthings will enter the waste stream at some point. The sad truth is that most toys are not as lucky as the Velveteen Rabbit, and once cast aside are destined for disposal operations rather than an enchanted life in the forest. Therefore, it’s important that we look at improving the environmental impacts of toys at all levels of the waste hierarchy.
Toys that are unsuitable for reuse may have potential for recycling; so, how do we achieve that? The problem with toy recycling is twofold: separate collection schemes are virtually non-existent, while toys are far from uniform in the materials they are made from. Even an individual toy may be made of several different materials, making them difficult to process and recover. There is something of a chicken and egg situation: why collect something for recycling that can’t be recycled, and why design something for recycling if there’s no collection system for it?
In other waste streams, an effective method is to engage producers in making products recyclable, typically through extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes. EPR could stimulate joint working, with toy producers encouraged to take a circular economy approach to designing their toys and to support waste operators to implement services that will collect waste toys for recycling. That might allow toys to be made from plastics with a greater recycled content.
The UK Government’s recent resources and waste strategy sets out its current thinking on how EPR legislation might be extended during the foreseeable future. Producer responsibility schemes are already in place for packaging waste, end-of-life vehicles (ELVs), batteries and accumulators, and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). Although the strategy states that consultations for two new EPR schemes will be held by 2022 (when the current parliament is due to end, Brexit turmoil notwithstanding), and sets out core principles for assessing new schemes, there is no indication of what waste streams may be up for consideration.
Maybe, as I toy myself, I’m biased, but given the near non-existence of recycling activity around my fellow dolls, playthings, games, knickknacks and novelties, it seems to me that toys are a great candidate for EPR. And even if toys are not stipulated as an EPR category, then we should at least be ensuring that that the materials included in toys are covered.
Additional policy measures that could be used to increase the reuse and recycling toys include:
- Setting mandatory eco-design standards for toys
- Putting in place essential requirements on minimum recycled content and ease of recycling
- Requiring product information to be made available to aid repair and recycling
- Taxing low durability toys – the revenue could go towards supporting a network of toy libraries.
In the best cases, toys will be loved and played with for years before being passed on to somebody new for a second life. Sadly, most will not enjoy my happy fate. When a toy does reach the end of its life, let’s not consign it to the hell fire of an incinerator or the purgatory of a landfill; let’s give it a chance of rebirth, recycled on the wheel of toy reincarnation. Do we owe our treasured childhood companions anything less?
Featured image: © Eunomia. Maurice’s second life experience has also been commemorated in song.