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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