Where do your kids’ toys go to die? Children, consumerism, toys and trash

A few weeks ago I overheard a woman say (online) that she cleaned her basement and subsequently “threw out 10 bags of broken, crap toys!” The comments that followed applauded her efforts. I’m not sure if they were happy that she cleaned the basement or that she discarded numerous toys, but I couldn’t help but feel saddened that so many “broken, crap toys” were on their way to the landfill.

I can’t say I’ve never thrown out a broken toy myself, but generally speaking I try to make an effort to acquire toys that are the antithesis of “crap” and, thus will stand the test of time and, once they’ve lived out their time with us, can be given away to someone else (or saved for my kid’s kids…someday). Of course some less than stellar toys inevitably make their way into our house, but 10 bags of junked toys seems like a lot to me.

It had me wondering, is this scenario the norm or the exception? What do you think?

According to Earth911, “Recent studies show nearly every household purchases at least one toy a year (often more), and toy sales in the U.S. in 2007 totaled to $20.5 billion.” How many of those toys make their way into the landfills?

I have to admit that I feel guilty every time I throw a broken anything into the trash. I know that throwing something away doesn’t really make it go away. There is no “away.” It just means that it’s going to sit in a landfill or in an ocean somewhere for years and years and years. That bothers me, which is why I try to avoid it. (If you haven’t yet watch The Story of Stuff, I highly recommend it.) This is also why this weekend I was trying to Freecycle a bunch of stuff that we’re no longer using.

I wrote a bit about my process for getting rid of stuff in the post “Decluttering your house, the green way.”

Even if I know the garbage can is my last option for stuff, I still feel bad about throwing it out. I hate to think about it ending up in a landfill and staying there forever, but then I also have to be realistic and not completely beat myself up over it. It’s a good reminder to make wise choices when buying things and think:

* Do I really need this?
* Is it good enough quality that it will last for years or will it break after a year and have to be replaced?
* Should I save my money for a little while longer and buy a better quality item that will last me longer?
* What will I do with it when I no longer need it (or when it breaks)?

Of course this is a bit harder when you have kids (and toys) and it’s not always practical to go through this list every time you buy something, but it’s a good practice to get into and will help to avoid unnecessary purchases in the future. It can also help you avoid buying cheap, plastic toys that might as well go directly from the assembly line to the landfill for as long as they are usable. But don’t get me started about those. ;oP

Good toys vs. Junk toys

Jennifer Lance wrote Green Family Values: No More Junk Toys! and offers some tips on how to tell a good toy from a junk toy:

How can you tell a junk toy from a good toy? Field naturalist Alicia Daniel offers the following list of questions to ask when selecting toys:

  1. Will this toy eventually turn into dirt-i.e., could I compost it? Stones, snowmen, driftwood, and daisies-they will be gone, and we will be gone, and life goes on.
  2. Do I know who made this toy? This question leads us to search for the hidden folk artist in each of us.
  3. Is this toy beautiful? Have human hands bestowed an awkward grace, a uniqueness lacking in toys cranked out effortlessly by machine?
  4. Will this toy capture a child’s imagination?

So what do you do with the old toys?

Earth911 has some tips for recycling toys including:

  • passing them on to other family members
  • donating them
  • repairing broken toys
  • or selling them.

They also list the benefits of recycling toys.

Think before you buy

I think the best advice though is to think before you buy. I know not every single toy purchase can be a thoughtful/practical one, but if you can change that so the percentage of thoughtful purchases is increased by 25%, 50%, 75% or more, think of how much crap that will keep out of the landfills. Also, you might want to consider the carbon footprint and the safety of the toy. How far did it have to travel to get to your toy store? If you live in the United States, could you buy an American-made alternative instead? There have been a lot of recalls of toys in the past several years. When you buy well-made, quality toys, you reduce the risk of a recall.

Children and consumerism

Mrs. Green from My Zero Waste in her post A Plastic Frisbee for the Landfill wrote:

I have to say, this is something that concerns me about 21st century life – the massive volume of ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ toys that our children are growing up with. They last a few days at best and then become ‘rubbish’. Our children are bought up to look for the next fix and move on to the next thing, like good little consumers. I wonder how we can ever solve the landfill issue until we pull back from so much mindless consumerism. We try and stay away from it as much as we can, but we can’t live in a vacuum or turn our child into the village freak.

I agree. I don’t want my children to be turned into mindless consumers, which is why I support the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, but I also realize they cannot live in a vacuum and I don’t want them to be ostracized by their peers.

So, what’s the solution?

Think before you buy, have a plan in mind for what to do with a toy when your child is done with it, and remember: everything in moderation.

One of my favorite Native American proverbs is, “We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.” Yes, a cheap plastic toy might make your child happy for a few minutes or weeks, but how happy will it make them in 20 years when their generation is responsible for cleaning up the mess that resulted from all of those cheap plastic toys?

Related links:
Second Chance Toys: Rescuing and Recycling Plastic Toys for Needy Children
Tips for Choosing Eco-friendly Toys
Simple toys are better for children
Toys from Trash

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45 thoughts on “Where do your kids’ toys go to die? Children, consumerism, toys and trash”

  1. EXCELLENT article. To answer your question, it would seem we continue down the path of “throw-away society” AND “excess” in many aspects of life, including children’s toys. If you have friends and relatives, toys accumulate even when you/parents don’t overdo it (although I fear that overdoing it is parents’ norm — some of the Facebook Christmas pics with toys beneath the tree for a one-child {preschooler!} family certainly showcase this attitude). We won’t even talk about what kind of entitlement and expectation issues overdoing it creates.

    Like you, I don’t want my child to feel like he’s growing up in a hole, unable to talk intelligently about products and programs … and yet I’m much more “afraid” of him being too engrossed in such stuff. And so we refuse to get cable (gasp!) and we do not intend to get Wii (double gasp) — instead, how about some ACTUAL FAMILY TIME where individuals are looking at one another without lots of outside influence?!

    My son is 5 years old and when I see him trudge through the house on a wild bear hunt or searching for monsters, making use of all kinds of items as weapons (including his superhero ability of shooting love from his hands), I realize that too much crap gets in the way of imagination. I FIRMLY BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE FOR ADULTS TOO.

    I challenge us — as parents and as humans — to stop the crazy loop of acquiring lots of junk that either breaks/quits working almost immediately (and then lives forevermore in the landfill). And I challenge us to downsize our materialistic mindset. Do we own our things or do they own us? And as I mentioned earlier, we need to forego some of the whiz-bang, shiny gadgets and start truly, completely interacting with the little people we call our children. Ditto for our spouses. Ditch the distractions (alas, the internet sometimes too) and marvel at one another.

    Thanks for a great article. Sorry for lingering on my soapbox!

  2. I think about this issue whenever we do a toy cleanse. Unfortunately, we end up with way too much plastic stuff that people give us or we just end up buying because it’s cheap. It’s not easy. Bottom line: Our kids just have way too much. But being a good little consumer myself, I keep getting sucked back in.

  3. We end up with lots of cheap plastic toys, mostly from relatives. And these toys, sadly, end up broken far more quickly than they should. They just are not made to stand the test of time. When that happens I try to repair them, and if they’re at all usable I like to donate them instead of junking them, but sometimes you can’t avoid it. It makes me sad, and I worry about the amount of plastic trash I am personally responsible for producing. But as long as others give it to my children, I don’t see a good solution. 🙁

  4. Because I only have an infant right now, I don’t know how to answer these questions when it comes to baby items such as the exer-saucer, the baby swing, the bouncy chair, the activity mat…these are things that are absolute lifesavers because they keep babies entertained and engaged safely for hours, but yet we aren’t really able to find any non-plastic or responsibly-made versions that we could afford. We ended up borrowing ours from friends or getting them at a consignment store. I guess we will pass them on or re-sell them on Craigslist when we are finished. But they don’t necessarily pass the “will it last” test, and we can’t guarantee the next owner won’t put them in a landfill…

  5. Awesome post. I have to say it is not just the plastic that is the problem. We were just talking about this last night, that as a society, we need a central “broken crap” sorting area, sorta like a junkyard for all the little stuff, metal, wood, plastic and everything in-between/combined. Those who can remake things would get access to it and then things really could be remade and reused.

    Right now I have a few wooden toys that were passed on to us, but that came to us incomplete. I hate to toss them because they are wood, but they are not functional toys, so they can’t be played with either. Grr!

  6. The solution is donate to the goodwill or salvation army near my house- I will buy them and repurpose them! Just kidding- I have too many toys already squeezing my space- But if they have wheels (wagons, bikes) And are in bad shape- try putting them on Free Cycle or craigs list- I am always looking for old broken bikes to make craft crap out of. While not an artist, I have friends in need of doll parts for their art. There is always a solution!!!

  7. Hello lovely goddess!

    I, too, hate to see toys go to the landfill. I’m lucky in that I have a niece who likes getting my daughter’s hand-me-down toys. We also do a lot of Goodwill-ing of toys, occasional craigslisting and Freecycling. I’ve also left toys near my complex’s Dumpster, which is the communal recycling place. You should see the look on the face of the boy who realized my step-son’s outgrown bike was his for free. That’s kind of fun.

    But the toys that I can’t figure out to do with are the ones that come with kids meals. I’ve started asking for no toys, because inevitably they wind up under my car seat and then I toss them.

  8. Exactly! We have put the kibosh on bringing new “junk” into our house. Classic toys that inspire imagination or favorites that have a lot of personal meaning are about all we have left. We donated what didn’t *sell* at our $0.01 toy sale before we moved…and our kids find way more time to play and be creative when they are not constantly having to pick up the mountains of toys laying around!

  9. I’ve thrown away very few toys, most of what we buy and what other people tend to give us either A–hold up well or B–hold up well long enough for my kids to outgrow it and me to give it away. What bothers me more is the vast amount of packaging that often goes into the trash. On my side of the street, only 4 houses, including ours, recycles. And I think that’s sad.

    Even shoes can be recycled or passed along to someone who would be happy to have them, and it really bugs me when I see people toss stuff they think is “crap” that is still usable.

  10. We get way too much – and much of it is cheap stuff not designed to last. We do however, at least twice a year (if not 3 or 4 times) sort through. Luckily many toys are not yet broken and can go to goodwill for other kids to play with. However, I know they probably won’t last long enough to get to a third child which stinks. I will say, as the kids get older, this problem is less and less of an issue. And many years our wish lists for holidays/birthdays includes things like zoo membership, museum membership. The last two holidays, one set of grandparents have gven us park district gift certificates which is just fabulous!
    It’s a hard problem to deal with, especially when extended family isn’t on board with buying less (but buying better quality). There seems to be a theme of giving as much as you can for gifts instead of gettin the best gifts for that child too often I think.
    I would agree with Kayris that what we end up throwing away the most is the packaging. There is always SO much of that. Ugh.

  11. I think about this too. We get a lot of “gifts” that consist of plastic and/or electronic toys that I don’t want because I know they offer limited entertainment for my kids, will break easily, look awful, have no educational purpose and will not stand the test of time.

    I will give them to Goodwill or Craigslist but I get them out of my home as soon as possible. I have a number of big, black garbage bags full of crap toys (that I did NOT buy) 🙂 in my garage as I type this.

  12. I too agree that this is a great post and all too timely for me. We have unfortunately not been able to cure various friends and relatives of buying crap toys. The kids love them and subsequently break them (although they are finally getting better about treating their toys well, hooray!).

    I just went through several bins of broken and junky toys that I had been storing in the garage not knowing what to do with them. Junky toys are getting donated, but what about the really broken ones? They are now sitting in another container, waiting for me to figure that out… I absolutely can’t stand to just throw them away.

  13. As my 7mo already has a full toy box, I am certainly no model of restraint. I have started culling out toys she recieves that are
    A. Not age appropriate
    B. She already has 12 of
    C. I just don’t want in my house
    and saving them to give to my patients. I work in an office with many kids who don’t have an excess of anything, let alone toys.

  14. We do not buy much for the kids in the way of toys. We do buy quite a few art supplies though. It’s the grandparents that go totally overboard for Christmas and Birthdays – we’ve tried to talk them into family gifts . . . which they did this year by getting our family a Wii then getting all the kids the stuff they normally would’ve.

    Each kid does donate before Christmas and their birthday – they’ve been able to see the impact it has made on other families.

  15. Excellent post, and I agree with it all. However, there plenty of “crap toys” under my roof. Meet the grandparents…even when I give them alternative ideas, like sending the kids to an interesting class or camp, we still end up with the junky fad toys too. It’s such a waste 🙁

  16. Good blog, Amy. I notice that some of the toys in the trash bag were ones you and your siblings played with 33 years ago. Yes, I saved them for my grandchildren and am proud that I did.

  17. As a kid my parents and I regularly went through my toys and purged. They made sure to do it when it wasn’t around holiday time or birthdays because they didn’t want to send a message that we were getting rid of stuff in order to get more stuff. They made sure that I went through the toys with them so they didn’t give away something I truly loved and they always made sure that I knew that we were going to donate my old outgrown toys to kids who didn’t have any toys. It was a good lesson for me as a kid. I learned that I should take care of my toys so we could donate them to charity when I outgrew them and that even a little kid can make a difference.

  18. Great article! My mind is always blown when I hear parents talking about what they bought their kids for Christmas or their birthday. Seriously, children do not need that many toys!

    I received a huge box of hand-me-down toys and they were all in great condition (almost appeared the kids never touched them). My son played with those and then I sold them on Craigslist (instead of filling our landfill with them). There were just too many toys so he picked out a few that became favorites and never touched the others.

    My policy for birthdays and holidays is NO TOYS! Instead, I send a book list to relatives if they insist on buying him something. Otherwise, all money goes straight into his savings account.

    If we do purchase him toys, we try to get him toys made out of recycled materials or sustainable ones. We need to think about our kids’ futures and stop polluting landfills and the oceans with junk!

  19. Excellent post – and so true. We try really hard to avoid it but it’s not always possible.
    I was very proud of my 8 year old daughter this year – for her birthday she asked guests at her party to bring money or donations for our local animal shelter. We had discussed ahead of time that there really wasn’t anything she needed (her birthday is a week after Christmas) or even wanted. Plus she loves animals so it worked out really well. Stopping the crap from coming in the house in the first place is the hardest thing sometimes. My biggest pet peeve is the junk in “goodie bags” at birthday parties and the fads that race through the schools (Silly Bandz, anyone?).

  20. I totally agree! And I am with Liz on the goodie bags at birthday parties. Another pet peeve of mine are stuffed animals! Really, how many stuffed animals do people think a child needs? We almost need to move to a bigger house to have enough space for the zoo!
    We also get a (cheap, useless, probably toxic) toy at our local pharmacy every time we go there, which then never gets played with.

    I think it also reflects on the values of our society in a way – we seem to think we (only) can make our children happy when we give them stuff – or sweets. And I find our children get sucked into this value system, even when we try hard to teach them differently.
    As for family members and friends we mostly get dance classes, music lessons and other activities. Toys that I buy are usually used or we get hand me downs and we are trying to give them to charity when my daughter has outgrown them.

    I also like the idea of rotating toys in your neighborhood. One family can buy the toy kitchen, one the big doll house and so on. Then you rotate every month. This way your child always gets “new” toys and they get a sense of sharing.

  21. Great article and great timing. After the holidays many parents are sorting thru & cleaning out toys. It’s on my list to do for the month. Anything that’s plastic & broken I recycle then donate or sell the rest on Craig’s List. I buy alot of 2nd hand toys so they don’t tend to last long 🙁 I read the zrecs.com article and it was a good one too.

  22. It would go against every fiber of my being to just simply throw away toys. I always donate or find them a good home. We try desperately to purchase heirloom toys to love, but those junky ones always have a way of sneaking in.

    Our consumer driven ways, the trash, really is a sad reflection of our society.

  23. This is such a great article. I find that while we buy our children a few toys, most of them find their way into our home (and eventually into the trash!) as gifts from family, birthday party favors, toys from a Happy Meal (yes, I admit my kids are occasionally allowed to indulge.) I shop for toys that will last because I love seeing my little girl playing with a 20 year old toy that was mine and will still probably be in great condition for her daughter. But I still don’t know what to do with all the other things that find their way into my home.

    I’ve started using the money grandma sends for Christmas to buy experiences instead of things–a Zoo membership, or swimming lessons. When my kids have birthdays, their friends paint pumpkins to take home instead of a goody bag filled with sugar and plastic junk.

    I try to pass along what I can that might be of use to someone else–when I say I “threw away” a bag of toys, it really means I dropped it off at the donation center.

  24. This post was right-on. I love what Emily-Sarah had to say about her son trudging through the house on a monster hunt, using his superpowers and found objects to aid in his quest. Your imagination is the biggest toy chest ever!

    My mother used to make origami animals for us and showed us how to make our own toys from little pieces of paper. Paper is more easily recycled, so I’m thankful my mother passed down something to me that I can pass along to my daughter.

    It’ll take all the great ideas here to make a real impact. Quality vs. quantity. Donate, resuse, reduce, recycle, pass-on, etc.

  25. Right on. In my line of work that isn’t much of an issue (swing sets last a pretty long time), but I am always concerned about the toys my lil ones will grow out of.

  26. Amy, thank you for bringing this to people’s attention. Slowly we will change our culture, I think it is happening already.

    It’s easy to keep usable toys out of the landfill. Most people know at least some children in their neighborhoods to give toys to. We have received lots of free toys from kids who have outgrown them, and we intend to pass them on later.

    Freecycle.org allows people to give away unwanted items (not just toys) to people in their local area. You can also go on the site and post a request for something you want. Certain charities – like the Salvation Army – have a truck and will actually pick up items on request.

    I agree that toys that are unique and beautiful are more likely to be given away or passed down to the next generation. Instead of thinking of a toy as a cheap disposable product, why not choose a toy that might be a future heirloom?

  27. After nearly 30 years of parenting (very large family) I am horrified at how much waste we’ve created. Even as late as 1990 there were no places to recycle. Imagine throwing a huge, toy kitchen set in the garbage!

    So, I got sick of it, and decided to create some change. So, I invented a system – kits that turn discarded packaging like food boxes, shampoo bottles, and turn into really fun play sets which can be recycled when done.

    The kit my youngest used to make a garage for his Matchbox cars lasted for 2 years! Kids really like these because THEY design exactly what they want – which is a really cool skill to have kids learn as well. Parents have fun doing this too!

    I’ll be doing a KickStarter campaign later this month, so if you’re inclined, feel free to visit http://www.stickerskinz.com. Any help will be appreciated – it will take many people to create change.

  28. Sadly this is the norm, I can tell you because I go to a place called dig n save where people donate toys, etc to be purchased (one last chance before the landfill) but there is no way they all get purchased (there is an overwhelming amount at just this one place on this one day in this one city in this one state in this one country). I am sad and depressed when I see it, a lot of it ugly plastic electronic talking or musical baby toys. Much of it, huge plastic toys. It’s wonderful some people are not partaking in this but believe me with so many who are, our environment will suffer unless we can get Mattel and Fischer Price etc etc to stop making all this horrid junk because too many people buy it.

  29. I see a lot of people like to donate toys, be selective of where you donate them to. I have seen large amounts of plastic donated toys in the dumpster behind a many of a GoodWill store.

  30. There is one option that hasn’t been mentioned yet, which is to donate to and join a community toy library. The toys are used many times and can be borrowed for a month and then swapped out for new toys to fulfil fickle tastes! I donated most of my kids’ toys and puzzles to our local toy library and then became a volunteer there myself. It saves people money, there are big expensive toys as well as any other toys that can be imagined, saving loads of money and reducing waste. Not to mention the community aspect 🙂

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