Electronic toys are an often-overlooked aspect of the growing issue of electronic waste and its detrimental impact on the environment and society, warns Emma Armstrong, Sustainable Electronics Ambassador for sustainable electronics campaigner In2tec.

A staggering nine billion kgs of ewaste is discarded each year – and children’s toys with hidden electronics alone account for around 3.2 billion kg.

E-toys contribute 77 times more to the world’s invisible e-waste problem than compared to vapes, according to data from the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).

In total the world threw out more than 7 billion e-toys in 2022, as reported by the WEEE forum, with little known about the percentage of how many toys were properly recycled.

Emma Armstrong says companies are under pressure to produce large quantities of toys and gadgets quickly, which unfortunately means that these electronic products are not built to last. They are designed to be as cheap as possible, resulting in little value after they are used and ultimately ending up in regular waste.

“Although the ongoing financial crisis dampened the usual toy sales surge in the run up to Christmas it doesn’t mean we can overlook the pressing issue of electronic waste that still looms over us,” Emma said.

“The landscape of toy purchases has been transformed by the rise of technology and looks set to continue to evolve. Tech such as headphones, gaming consoles, earphones, interactive toys, sound-playing books, drones, racing car sets, VR, electric trains, various robotic figures, and even low-cost gadgets that line the isles at Christmas are becoming staples for modern children.

“It’s fostered a culture of disposability, leading many parents and individuals to bin their outdated belongings when they switch to newer gadgets, or have simply finished playing with them, wrongly assuming that they are being recycled properly when thrown out.”

Even when disposed of properly, recycling companies often don’t put in the effort to extract the valuable materials because it simply doesn’t make financial sense for them.

The reality is much of our ewaste movement is uncontrolled, often illegally exported to landfill sites across Africa and Asia, for informal ‘urban mining’, where toxic additives and hazardous substances such as mercury, lead, and cadmium that we find in electronic components and products can leak into the surrounding earth, air, and water table – causing horrific health and ecological problems.

In2tec believes consumers need to be properly educated about what constitutes ewaste and guided to fully comprehend the consequences of their current habits.

Toys with embedded electronics must not be treated as disposable items. Research from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation suggested that almost a third of parents in the UK have admitted to throwing away toys still in good working condition.

Emma said: “Imagine if electronic toys could possess the same enduring quality as our beloved Lego bricks. By achieving this, we would not only encourage the tradition of passing down toys through generations but also challenge the notion that their lifespan is not limited to five years, but rather 25 years or more.”

She warns we need to find a solution that incorporates manufacturers, consumers, recyclers, legislators, and governments.

“This is a collective responsibility for us to change the habits and current processes that we are currently in favour of,” she said.

“If we continue with the linear new-for-old way of life, then our future generations will suffer. Our children and grandchildren will not benefit from advancing technology because we are rapidly depleting precious resources to make so many things that then go to waste.”

Recycling and reusing toys with embedded electronics is no longer a futile endeavour.

 Electronic toys and other invisible waste products hold essential raw materials worth nearly $10 billion waiting to be reclaimed, according to the WEEE.

In2tec has developed a ReUSE® process and materials for the manufacturing of unzippable electronics assemblies, and ReCYCLE™, an ultra-low energy disassembly process, allowing full end-of-life disassembly, reuse, and recyclability.

“Manufacturers should utilise the technologies when making electronic toys and gadgets, meaning that when they are no longer useful or wanted, they can be properly harvested for the materials and components that can be used again many times over. Consumers need to be aware this technology exists as it’s us who will influence and change the industry practices, just as we did with plastic bags and straws”.