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Can you recycle plastic toys: 4 tips for an eco-friendly family

Boy playing with wooden plane toy while mom watches 

Whether you are a new parent or a parent to a tween or teen, you know that raising a family can add to your household waste. Parenting can result in a lot of gear and convenience products, but by choosing secondhand items, recycling plastic toys, and using eco-friendly options, you can limit the amount of plastic waste your kids create.

The challenge of keeping unwanted plastic toys out of landfills

Many parents ask, can you recycle plastic toys? Most recycling efforts address single-use plastics like beverage containers and packaging. Unfortunately, there just aren’t a lot of options for recycling plastic toys, which are almost entirely made from hard plastic. What’s more, because toys are usually a mixture of different materials, they’re typically considered general waste and end up in landfills or are incinerated. Making the problem even worse, plastic toys usually have a short lifespan because kids lose interest in them as their abilities and interests evolve.

There are some options for recycling plastic toys

TerraCycle has partnered with several toy manufacturers to enable recycling. Among them are programs for Hasbro, Spin Master toys and games, L.O.L. Surprise!, and Vtech & LeapFrog electronic learning devices and electronic toys. In addition, TerraCycle offers for-purchase recycling solutions for toys, action figures and stuffed animals. Other companies, like Mattel Playback, also offer recycling for plastic toys.

While this is a start, the production and recycling of plastic still takes up resources. It’s more ecofriendly to purchase used toys instead of new.

Baby plays with wooden abacus while mom watches

Alternatives to plastic toys

There are many ways to avoid or reduce plastic with the toy options you provide for your kids. Make thoughtful decisions when purchasing toys, check thrift stores, garage sales and online exchanges for gently used toys, and remember to pass them on to someone else for reuse when your child is done playing with them. Focus on durable toys that won’t break easily, and always be aware of which toys have batteries and can’t go in the trash. Try to opt for natural materials when possible. When toys do break, see if you can extend their life by repairing them. Consider rotating toys to increase their novelty and reduce the overall number you buy. You can also let the creativity flow by repurposing other items found around your home.

Consider joining a toy library, such as the Minneapolis Toy Library or The Lending Closet to reduce waste, prevent clutter and save money. Being a member of the toy library means your kids will get new toys every few weeks that match their development stage.

Overhead view of woman changing baby's cloth diaper

Gearing up for a new baby

With huge “essentials” lists and lots of baby products in stores, you might be tempted to buy many new plastic items to make sure you have covered your bases to care for your new family member. Try to stick to the basics and repurpose your existing items for your baby’s needs. For example, consider using:

  • Your existing food processor or blender instead of a baby food processor
  • A backpack, messenger bag or purse instead of a diaper bag
  • “Free and clear” laundry detergent instead of a separate baby laundry detergent
  • A regular dish rack instead of a bottle drying rack

You could also consider asking friends and family to rehome some of the baby items their children no longer need, or even look into buying some items secondhand. A lot of effort goes into marketing new baby products to first-time parents, but by refurbishing items you already have, getting hand-me-down items from friends or family, and shopping for supplies secondhand, you can reduce the amount of plastic waste associated with a new baby.

Cloth diapering

Another large opportunity to avoid plastic trash and save money is to use reusable cloth diapers. Cloth diapers are as easy to put on your child as their disposable counterparts and arguably more stylish. Cloth diapers do need to be washed, but their numerous benefits outweigh this additional step.

  1. Cloth diapers save money. The average family spends $3,000 to $4,000 per child on disposable diapers. Cloth diapers have a one-time cost of $100 to $1,500, depending on the style. Cloth diapers can be used for multiple children, so a family can easily save thousands of dollars by switching to cloth.
  2. Cloth diapers are low-waste. For families with kids using disposable diapers, about 50 percent of their weekly trash consists of disposable diapers. So, although using reusable diapers is a commitment, it has significant benefits.
  3. Cloth diapers have resale value, so many people regain part of their investment by selling them when they are no longer needed.

To make it even easier to use cloth diapers, consider buying them secondhand, using a combination of cloth and disposable diapers, or signing up for a diaper washing service to reduce your laundry burden. For more information on the benefits of cloth diapers, check out these diaper facts and statistics. Find several diaper buying and diaper cleaning services on the Choose to Reuse website.

Two young girls cutting cucumbers

Plastic-free food and snacks 

Life can be hectic in a busy household, and single-serve, plastic-wrapped snacks might be something you grab to fuel your family and save time. You may be able to cut back by swapping for unpackaged fruits and veggies or prepping your own portions with reusable alternatives like Tupperware or refillable squeeze pouches. There are lots of alternatives to packaged convenience foods that are lower cost, lower waste and often healthier. Here are some tips to get started:

  1. Pack lunches, including sandwiches and snacks, in reusable containers rather than plastic bags.
  2. Choose durable bottles for drinks and fill them with tap water or other beverages.
  3. Include reusable forks, spoons and cloth napkins.
  4. Try to avoid common prepackaged convenience foods such as bottled water, candy, chips, and fruit snacks.
  5. Encourage your family to bring home any food in their lunch they didn’t eat to have later. Serve leftover food as snacks, incorporate it into new meals or send it again the next day for lunch.

For ideas on what to pack and containers to pack it in, browse 100 Days of Real Food or read our article about adopting low-waste lunch habits.

Celebrate your eco-friendly family

Working to reduce the plastic in your life is a difficult and ongoing process. It is important to celebrate your successes, no matter how small! By taking steps to limit the purchase of new convenience products for your kids, choosing secondhand and durable items, and adopting a low-waste mindset, you can limit the amount of plastic waste your family creates.

Now that warm weather has arrived – and with it, the desire to clean and declutter – this a great time to get serious about donating usable goods that are taking up space in your overcrowded home.