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The Garbage Maven: A toy story of another sort

Used toys are notoriously difficult to recycle; most end up in trash bins

LOS ANGELES ― Americans bought 2.9 billion toys last year. As I stumble through the house after play dates, it sometimes feels as if my 8-year-old son owns all of them.

Our living room is exploding with Lego bricks, Nerf weaponry and rubbery bounce balls. My son’s bedroom is, more often than not, carpeted with Pokemon cards and comic books, Matchbox cars and “MythBusters” science experiments.

It’s a problem that’s a lot like bed bugs. I have no idea where a lot of these toys even came from, and getting rid of them responsibly is a lot more difficult than I’d imagined.

Friends and family are usually my first choice for popular, once-loved toys that are in good shape, but what to do with the plastic Thunderbolt Superpower Sword that now bends in half with each parry? Or that tub of pink Floam that’s hardened into a repulsive brick of micropellets and grubby-hand dirt? Or the battery-operated Creepy Crawlers bug maker that, just as the online reviews had warned, soon stopped working?

Each broken toy has its place. Unfortunately, that place rarely is the recycling bin.

I have yet to see a single toy marked with a chasing arrows symbol indicating it can be recycled. Most toys are made from mixed materials, usually some combination of metal and a mind-boggling array of plastics. Many of them also incorporate electronics.

Most broken toys should be thrown in the black trash bin, according to the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation. Nonoperational toys with electronic components are e-waste and may need to be taken to one of the electronic trash drop-off locations in your municipality.

Then there are the toys that have been recalled. Since February 2009, when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act significantly lowered lead and phthalate limits in children’s products, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued more than 60 recalls affecting millions of children’s toys. Most of the recalls have been for products that present choking, burning, strangulation, ingestion or laceration hazards, or that contain lead paint. In many areas, those recalled toys also should be taken to hazardous waste drop-off sites.
Few broken toys can be recycled because they are made from mixed materials and most donation centers don’t take still-working toys in case they have been recalled. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Few broken toys can be recycled because they are made from mixed materials and most donation centers don’t take still-working toys in case they have been recalled. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)

More disturbing than the thought of children’s toys being labeled hazardous waste: the idea that there are a lot more toys containing lead than are caught by the safety commission, especially older painted toys and children’s metal jewelry.

That concern has filtered down to the donation outlets where I used to drop off castoffs. Until a few years ago, Goodwill, Salvation Army and Out of the Closet thrift stores took such things, and some still do. But used toys probably won’t be resold in these stores because they lack the staffing and resources to verify the products’ safety.

I recently packed up toys, most of them broken, and trotted off to the above-mentioned charities to see whether any would take the box. Among the items were a Tonka truck that my son had smashed to bits with a hammer, a smiley-face beach ball that had been left outside overnight and had been bitten by a raccoon, and a plastic Ant Farm filled with green gel but not the dead ants, which I had scooped out.

Out of the Closet in South Pasadena had a sign posted at the entrance to its donation area saying it did not accept toys or games. The Salvation Army up the road said it would take the toys and resell anything that still worked; everything else would be recycled or trashed.

At the Goodwill, first, I was told the store would recycle what was inside. When I asked how, I was told the toys wouldn’t actually be recycled but would be shipped to a hazardous waste facility along with TVs. A spokeswoman for Goodwill Southern California said stores “tend to dissuade toy donations due to Consumer Products Safety Commission guidelines.” The toys that the organization does accept are tested for lead with a Niton analyzer, she said, as well as “evaluated against safety criteria suggested by consumer and regulatory agencies and in accordance with our own standards.”

Ultimately, I decided the most responsible destination for my box of broken goodies was Yes We Can E-Waste in downtown L.A. However, the organization couldn’t guarantee that none of the contents of my box would get trashed by its recycler. I got rid of the bug maker and broken sword but kept the rest. As I was walking back to my car, a man on the street asked whether he could have two of the stuffed animals, which I gladly handed over. I gave the remaining 15 items to the Salvation Army, hoping the workers would salvage whatever else was possible. According to a spokeswoman for the charity, 20 percent of donated toys are in salable condition; 80 percent are recycled.

This entire exercise got me thinking: Why does the burden of toy disposal fall to consumers and ultimately the municipalities in which they live? Do any retailers or manufacturers take any responsibility for what they’re selling?

I am to blame for bringing so many toys into my house in the first place, and I’m making a concerted effort to cut down, but it’s difficult, with all the random toys my son gets from birthday parties and as gifts.

My son is at an age when he’s starting to feel peer pressure; he wants the same Bakugan Brawlers and yo-yos that his friends have. So I recently joined an online toy- and clothes-swapping service,, which lets parents trade boxes of unwanted kid stuff. Earlier this week, I posted that I had a box of free “Popular Mechanics for Kids” DVDs, a ZhuZhu pet and a Star Wars light saber for anyone willing to pay the $10.95 shipping fee and $5 ThredUp service charge. A few hours later, I had a taker.

Twenty-nine items down. Just a few hundred to go.

By Susan Carpenter

(Los Angeles Times)

(Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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