Little boy playing with toy cars

Kids grow and change quickly, and so does their taste in toys. One minute, they can’t get enough dolls. The next minute, they can’t stand the idea of them, opting for toy cars instead. As kids grow up, parents often find themselves with lots of unwanted plastic toys to dispose of. And toy recycling options are limited.

Most toys are difficult to recycle, especially if they’re made up of tiny plastic parts that can’t be easily separated. Municipal recycling programs don’t typically accept plastic toys; recyclers often accept only specific shapes and sizes of plastics. The best hope is to find a takeback program through the toy manufacturer or retailer.

Mattel PlayBack

One of the largest toy makers in the world, Mattel, Inc., recently launched their own toy takeback program. Called Mattel PlayBack, the program is designed to recover and reuse materials derived from old Mattel toys to make new products. By participating in the program, families give new life to their unwanted Mattel brand toys, diverting waste from the landfill.

Currently, Mattel PlayBack accepts Barbie, Matchbox, and MEGA toys in the United States and Canada. The company says it hopes to expand it to France, Germany, and the United Kingdom in the near future. They also plan to add toys from all of their other brands, like Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price. For now, though, the company recommends donating those ineligible toys to other children as long as they’re in relatively good condition.

How To Participate

Similar to Lego’s Replay program, which they launched in 2019, Mattel’s PlayBack program provides free prepaid shipping labels to interested participants after they fill out a brief form with contact information and the like. But unlike the Lego program, which diverts waste from the landfill by cleaning the toy bricks and donating them to charities or schools, Mattel promises to recycle or reuse the collected toys in their own future products.

Participating in Mattel’s takeback program is remarkably easy and the process won’t cost you a dime. When it comes time to pass on your child’s used Barbie, Matchbox, or MEGA toys, return them to Mattel instead of tossing them in the trash. Their condition doesn’t matter and you won’t need to clean or repair them before mailing them in.

Head to the company’s website and fill out a brief form. Then, you’ll be provided with a free, printable prepaid shipping label for your toys. Grab an old cardboard box and package your toys (use newspapers for cushioning if needed). If the toy has batteries, remove and recycle them separately.

After your package is prepped, slap on the shipping label, drop it off at the post office. You’ve successfully diverted your plastic toys from a landfill where they could have sat for hundreds of years leaching harmful chemicals into the soil and groundwater.

How Donated Toys Are Recycled

Once Mattel receives your old toys in the mail, they will sort and separate them by material. The company promises to recycle them and reuse their components in new toy products whenever possible.

If it’s not possible to recycle or reuse them due to outdated or damaged components, the company will either downcycle the materials into other plastic products or convert them from waste to energy.

While the company doesn’t delve into the recycling details, it’s likely the process will be similar to that of other plastic recycling programs. This involves sorting, shredding, and melting the plastic so it can be fashioned into something new.

Mattel’s Sustainability Goals

Mattel has a big sustainability goal — going waste-free by using circular design principles. First, they design their products to last, so they can be passed on from kid to kid and easily repaired when needed. And the company is conscious about the materials they use and says they aim to recycle and reuse them when possible, incorporating old materials into new toys.

Their current primary goal is to rely on 100% recycled, recyclable, or bio-based plastic materials in their products and packaging by 2030. And by the end of 2020, they’re on track to achieve 95% recycled or Forest Stewardship Council-certified content in the paper and wood fiber they use in packaging and products.

Mattel introduced several toys to support this goal in 2020. This includes two Fisher-Price baby toys made from plastic derived from sugarcane, three MEGA Bloks sets made from bio-based plastics, and the first fully recyclable UNO deck without cellophane packing materials.

What About Other Toy Brands?

Mattel’s PlayBack toy recycling program accepts only Mattel brand toys. If you have other toys to recycle, TerraCycle partners with different manufacturers to offer free recycling for their products. Currently, TerraCycle offers free recycling for all Hasbro brand toys and games, Spin Master toys and games, L.O.L. Surprise products and packaging, and VTech and LeapFrog electronic toys and learning devices. TerraCycle also offers for-purchase recycling solutions for toys, action figures, and stuffed animals.

If your kids’ toys are still in working condition, please pass them along to other children who can enjoy them, as you can do with unwanted Lego bricks through the Lego Replay program.

By Lauren Murphy

Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.