The state of sex toy recycling

The state of sex toy recycling

Major sex toy companies have made numerous highly visible and vocal attempts to go green over the last decade-plus: As the industry woke up to the toxic effects of common toy materials, most makers overhauled their manufacturing, using body safe and often more environmentally sound practices and substances. To cut down on ancillary waste, most replaced battery-gobbling electric toys with rechargeable models, and developed slimmer toy packaging. A couple companies even tried to launch fully green-powered toys, like a hand-cranked vibrator and a solar-powered bullet vibe

Yet even the most eco-conscious makers and retailers often gloss over the topic of toy disposal. At best, most stress that their toys are durable, and thus should last users years. But Carol Queen, a sexologist who works with the toy retail chain Good Vibrations, notes that this hand-waving just "kicks the can down the road." This non-engagement is also rather conspicuous in light of the rapid growth of the sex toy industry — and with it toy waste, as users toss out old products in favor of new models, as well as new items they didn't like as much as they hoped. Sex toys are a miniscule slice of overall consumer waste, but those made of plastic and electronic bits can be particularly environmentally devastating. It's all but impossible to calculate the exact number of adult items that end up in landfills, but the rising tide of toy waste has some activists concerned.   

"Holy shit, so many plastic sex toys are filling our landfills, polluting the ground," says Annie Sprinkle, a pioneer of ecosexuality, a small but growing movement built around the eroticization of eco-consciousness. 

This gap in the green sex conversation largely reflects the fact that it's shockingly hard to recycle sex toys — especially in America, one of the epicenters of the adult industry but also a nation with a notoriously erratic and dysfunctional recycling system. So, even if retailers and makers want to give users responsible avenues for disposing of their old items, Queen says they often just can't. A few firms have attempted to address these limitations in recent years; last fall actually witnessed a flurry of excitement about a new wave of supposedly easy-to-recycle, and in some cases even ostensibly biodegradable, toys. (VICE’s Helen Meriel Thomas dubbed it "the second coming" of eco-friendly sex toys.) But all of these solutions are flawed and limited at best, which leaves users to come up with creative ways to reduce their own sex toy waste.  

Untouchable materials 

Though some cheap, iffy sex toy materials, such as jelly-like plastics, are so low-grade that they cannot be broken down and reused, most modern toys are made of substances like ABS plastics, pure silicone, metal, glass, and even treated and sustainably-sourced hardwood that are in theory recyclable. In nations with robust recycling programs and laws, this theory translates well into practice; so long as you can get your toys to specialist recycling centers, they'll be broken down into their elements, and their recyclable materials will hopefully get turned into new items, but that's not always the case. 

In 2007, the United Kingdom-based toy mega retailer Lovehoney actually launched a program, dubbed "Rabbit Amnesty" in honor of the era's most popular type of vibrator, that helped British consumers avoid the hassle of finding specialty recyclers, and the (misplaced) shame of rolling up to one with an old vibrator in tow, by sending it to them instead. Lovehoney then consolidates these forsaken toys and brings them to proper disposal points. Over the last 15 years, a handful of similar convenient services have cropped up  across the United Kingdom and Australia

But in the United States, Queen explains, even a toy made solely of one eminently recyclable material "isn’t recyclable under ordinary conditions." Most recyclers just don't want anything to do with items that have been in contact with sexual fluids; they view them as a biohazard, and are under no legal obligation to process them. "Even while wearing protective gear, handling used sex toys is just unpleasant," admits Jack Lamon of the Canadian retailer Come As You Are. 

Many modern sex toys are also made of a mixture of materials, which most recyclers don't want to deal with, as breaking them down is time- and labor-intensive and they are price-sensitive, for-profit operations. "The materials might only be worth, say, $3," explains Alex Truelove, a recycling expert at the United States Public Interest Research Group, by way of a hypothetical yet all-too-plausible scenario. "That's much less than the labor and transportation costs associated with separating and preparing them." 

Eco-conscious consumers can try to break toys down themselves, but Felicity of Phallophile Reviews, a prominent sex toy review site, notes that this is often a lot harder than you might expect. (Felicity only uses her first name when discussing sex toys publicly.) And many toys don't actually list their specific materials, so it's hard to know what elements of a toy you've taken the time and effort to break down might actually be recyclable in theory. America's recycling system is also notoriously so fractious that even if you know that a toy or some of its broken-down elements are in theory recyclable, that doesn't mean anyone in your area, much less your municipal recycling program (if you have one) will be set up to take it. Taking pains to ship materials off to a recycler in another state that can take them may also end up creating a carbon footprint in transit and processing that outweighs the green value of recycling them.  

Even if you know your local recycling program processes the materials you've extracted from a toy, and sterilized to hell and back, you can't just pop it into a blue bin and have faith that it will get recycled. As Truelove explains, American recycling relies heavily on automatic sorting systems to keep costs low, and those systems are usually built to process common and fairly standardized items, like aluminum cans or cardboard boxes. Sex toys are rare enough, and so diverse in form, that they're not really on most recyclers' radars, and thus aren't accounted for in many automation systems. So, during sorting, toys or their deconstructed parts may still get diverted into a trash pile instead of processed for recycling. In the worst case (but all too common) scenarios, sorters may deem even sterilized toys or non-sortable toy elements contaminants, reject the entire bag or bin they're in, and burn or rubbish it all.   

"Right now, the term recyclable doesn't really mean anything."

So, Truelove cautions against putting too much stock in company hype about a product's so-called recyclable materials. (A few sex toy makers and retailers do use this as a selling point.) Because in-theory recyclable products are often not recyclable or recycled in fact. 

"Right now, the term recyclable doesn't really mean anything," Truelove stresses. 

A good idea while it lasted 

In the late aughts, ambitious toy companies and independent startups decided to get around these thorny issues by creating their own toy recycling programs, either for their defective or returned toys or for public use. The most ambitious of these projects would invite people from across the nation to sterilize and then send in their own toys. A dedicated team would sterilize them again and break them down into clearly identified materials and send large chunks to specialist recyclers who'd already guaranteed that they'd buy and process the raw goods in bulk. Even if they had to ship these materials far away, shipping one big hunk of matter rather than a flurry of individual toy bits would in theory minimize both environmental and capital costs.

However, when the adult industry reporter Lux Alptraum tried to follow up on these projects in 2013, she found that most of them never even got beyond the planning stages. And those that did manage to reach an operational stage were already defunct. Stefanie Iris Weiss, the author of ECO-Sex: Go Green Between the Sheets and Make Your Love Life Sustainable, says that most of these projects fell short because they ran into "systemic recycling issues in their communities." 

Lamon suspects that even those that managed to bypass the limitations of recycling systems just couldn't make their programs work economically. Come As You Are runs a program like this in Canada, sending ABS plastics to a commercial recycler, electronic waste to its local municipal processing system, and saving loads of silicone for an undisclosed future store project. Lamon says he's never counted, but he estimates that the program gets about 20 items to recycle per week. However, he admits that they still have to throw a few of these toys out, because they're made of unrecyclable materials. "It is amazing to me that in 2022 a lot of people actually still don’t know what their sex toys are made of. It’s actually pretty scary," he said.

Lamon freely acknowledges that Come As You Are loses money on the project — which he is happy to do in the spirit of social-environmental service. But few businesses are willing to make that bottom line sacrifice. The adult retail giant Adam & Eve has in the past openly admitted that it can't find an economically viable way to recycle returned toys, and thus throws tens of thousands into the trash every year. Lovehoney did not respond to a request for comment, but it's possible that these practical limitations explain why they never expanded their Amnesty program to the States.   

One of these programs, started in 2009 by the Portland-based retailer Scarlet Girl, is supposedly still operational — but reportedly only for its customers. Scarlet Girl did not reply to a request for comment and has in the past been cagey about its economic viability and logistical specifics. 

Taylor Sparks of the eco-conscious retailer Organic Loven is still confident that someone will eventually make intra-industry recycling work, somehow. A few toy industry insiders Mashable spoke to speculated that if the adult world as a whole came together to develop one cohesive system, and perhaps subsidize it, they could develop a viable program with longevity. 

However, Ben Foster of The Natural Love Company, an eco-focused sex toy firm, says that most consumers just don't prioritize and demand recyclability in the same way they do body-safe and non-toxic materials, so the incentives just aren't there for such a serious recycling push within the industry yet. Popular attitudes are changing, he acknowledged. However, they're nowhere near the critical mass they'd need to reach in order to spur wide-scale waste management reform.

"As someone who lives in the southern U.S., I don't see many people prioritizing recycling,” Felicity, the sex toy reviewer, agreed. “My apartment complex doesn't even have recycling.” 

"Also, there's no public relations benefit in programs like this, because sex toy recycling sounds to the general public too much like 'reselling used sex toys,'" says Lamon. That's actually an issue in some shady corners of the adult industry, he stressed, so no one wants the association. 

However, even a fully-functional, industry-wide program would still have severe limitations. Truelove points out that prices for recycled materials fluctuate wildly, so there's no guarantee that any buyers the industry finds for its old toy materials will stick around for a meaningful amount of time. There's also no guarantee that the folks they sell materials to won't downcycle them into cheap items that cannot be recycled again, thus only slightly mitigating or deferring their environmental costs. Truelove notes that it can be hard for people offloading materials to tell what actually becomes of them — if they were actually recycled, or just dumped into a landfill at a later stage of the recycling process or turned into a costly new non-recyclable item, loaded with toxic additives. 

Which, of course, is not ideal. 

Go with the flow 

Rather than attempt to invent and control an industry-specific recycling system, in recent years a few toy makers have started developing toys that attempt to work with the current state — and the constraints — of the American recycling system. Most of these toys are modular, and thus easy to break down for maximal recycling within the limits of a local system's materials and sorting rules and standards. But since 2019, a handful of companies have also released toys made using biodegradable bioplastics — polymers created using things like corn starch rather than oil byproducts. This past spring, the sex tech company Womanizer drew a ton of press (including a writeup by Mashable) when it released the PREMIUM Eco, a toy made largely of bioplastic. 

SEE ALSO: 5 biggest sex toy myths debunked

"The development took around two years, because finding the right material wasn't easy," says Johanna Rief, Womanizer’s head of sexual empowerment and spokesperson. 

However, modular toys only reduce some friction in recycling efforts; they don't overcome hard limits within recycling systems. And bioplastics are notoriously controversial materials. Most of them only actually degrade in special industrial facilities; in nature most break down slowly into tiny microplastic bits, which are still often environmentally harmful even if they may not be as toxic as an oil-based material. Womanizer openly acknowledges that these facilities are still rare in the United States. However, Rief still advises disposing of the PREMIUM Eco "in the regular household recycling bin." 

This advice flies in the face of most recycling experts' caution about not putting anything that your local recycling system can't process into a bin, for fear of processors treating it like a contaminant and trashing the whole lot. 

"Are bioplastics the perfect long-term solution" to sex toy waste and recyclability, Rief asked hypothetically. "Probably not until the government or companies build more of the needed special [processing] facilities. But it's the best solution that we could come up with for now." 

Eco-conscious sex toy reviewers do not seem impressed with this solution, or other supposedly biodegradable toys. In a review of the Eco, a toy critic who goes by the name Miss Ruby wrote, "What is the point of touting this as 'fully recyclable' if none of your customers can do so?"

"What is the point of touting this as 'fully recyclable' if none of your customers can do so?"

"I think it’s a marketing tactic rather than an actual environmental commitment," says Felicity. 

Toward a greener, sexier future 

Rief argues that solving the sex toy industry's sticky end-of-life issues will require "the overall mindset of society regarding environmental issues and recycling" changing. Truelove agrees. He stresses that we need better laws and incentive structures to make sure that we actually can and do recycle as many in-theory recyclable materials as possible, and design products with their post-use fate in mind. But that sort of social and legal change will be a long, arduous process. 

In the short term, everyone Mashable spoke to for this story agreed that the best thing the sex toy industry can do to tackle waste is… pretty much what it's been doing for years now: Make toys durable. Cut back on excessive packaging and make shipping as efficient as possible. Limit waste in manufacturing processes and use as many sustainably recycled materials as possible in products. These mundane, often semi-invisible tweaks don't attract much fanfare, but they make a real difference. "Recycling ranks rather low among possible actions to tackle waste and climate change," argues Foster of The Natural Love Company. "Reduce and reuse take precedence." 

There's a constant stream of new waste reduction initiatives flowing out of the adult industry at all times. Recently, for example, the British toy maker Love Not War started a program where it will attempt to repair any broken toy returned to it. This month, added Love Not War co-founder William Ranscombe, they're also launching a new bullet vibe, The Maya, "made from 99 percent recycled aluminum," one of the easiest to recycle, and most reliably recycled, materials out there. 

"You do have to start somewhere," Truelove says. "I appreciate companies that are trying." 

Consumers need to take a little ownership over and initiative in managing their own toy waste, too. Some have attempted to do so by participating in used toy exchange or resale programs among friends, in their local communities, or via online marketplaces. But as Mashable noted a few years back, the lack of regulation and transparency involved in most of these exchanges make them dicey at best if you don't know and trust your used toy source.

The best thing most consumers can actually do is to simply buy fewer new sex toys. "Too many people buy sex toys they never use, or use once and then throw away," Sprinkle, the ecosexual activist, points out. "Novelty is nice, but it doesn't have to come in the form of an adult toy… If you have three sex toys you really love, that's usually enough." You can care for them well, keep them alive for years or decades, then replace them only when they are beyond any hope of repair.  

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