Getting rid of a beloved sex toy can be a difficult process, and understandably so. For some people, it might represent the longest-lasting sexual relationship they’ve ever had. For others, kicking a dildo to the curb is as easy as breaking up with a flesh-and-blood partner. In either case, what to actually do with it once it’s no longer of use isn’t exactly clear. Do you toss it in the compost heap? Sell it on eBay? Maybe donate it to the orgasmically less fortunate? Can you recycle it?
While sex toy recycling still hasn’t caught on in any meaningful large-scale sense, there are a handful of purveyors that are taking steps to address the issue for both practical business concerns and environmental considerations.
“Most people just throw them out,” says Jack Lamon of Come As You Are, a sex toy co-op in Toronto that’s one of the few shops to promote a sex toy recycling program. “Since sex toys have been in existence, they’ve been going into landfills.” That’s because most municipalities in North America will not recycle them.
To counter this, Come As You Are encourages people to drop off or mail in their unwanted vibrators and silicone sex toys (after they’re thoroughly cleaned) and the co-op will handle the recycling from there. In return, they offer a 15 percent discount coupon for future purchases, and a little peace of mind.
But that program is definitely not the norm, and since the average sex toy is comprised of complex materials and parts—like ABS plastics, silicone, electronic parts, and rechargeable batteries—they can’t just go in the mainstream recycling. Some facilities also refuse toys that they consider a potential biohazard; they’ll take your trash, but they aren’t going anywhere near the junk that’s been near your junk. And as toys get more complicated, so do the disposal procedures.
“Right now, as we move toward more ‘premium’ products, those use the same technology in some cases as a cell phone: lithium ion batteries, rechargeable batteries. If they’re just being put into the dump, they’re going to leach the same chemicals or toxins as your cell phone,” says Coyote Days, product and purchasing manager for Good Vibrations. (She was using what she called “hilariously vague language” since she was waiting in a line at the airport when we spoke on the phone.)
“When looking at high-tech toys that have remote controls, or advanced motors that aren’t just a coil or whatever, there’s a little more potential for toxins,” she continued. “It wasn’t such an issue before you had this advanced technology, or people weren’t looking at it the same.”
Everyone loves silicone when it comes to toys because it’s so easy to clean, and comparatively easy to mold into different shapes, but it never degrades, which conjures an image of a floating island of dildos somewhere out in the middle of the ocean.
It doesn’t have to be that way—recycling these toys requires just a few extra steps of precaution. But whether or not that’s worth it isn’t widely agreed upon.
“The labor involved in breaking those things down is way too high for it to be worth the while of the average recycling facility,” Lamon says. “For us, we’re an anti-capitalist sex shop, and we were faced with an ethical dilemma: We love these toys, but it’s hard to stomach that all of them were making their way into landfills. We felt like we should do something.”
In other words, put your dildo in your dumper, if you want, just not in the dump.
Other stores are following suit. Besides Come As You Are, there’s Scarlet Girl, based in Portland, and Lovehoney in the UK, both of which have similarly environmentally conscious and sex-positive outlooks. In all three cases, these retailers don’t actually undertake the recycling process themselves, but rather expedite it as a sort of go-between in a way that makes it possible for consumers to recycle their toys.
“Most of it is just breaking down the toys, sorting them, then privately contracting out to other companies to recycle them,” Lamon says. They’ve long done battery recycling at the store, and at the moment they’re waiting to amass enough ABS plastic to ship out and enough silicone to be repurposed for future use.
Another hurdle comes at the point of return. Although the huge boom in sales across the board—an estimated $15 billion now—has led to sex toys making their way onto the shelves of Walmart and CVS, a great deal of sex toy purchases is made online. While sex-positive toy retailers will often take returns, that’s only when the toy is defective.
“We don’t allow returns for toys that are functional; the industry has a bad history with reselling them,” Lamon says, before going into stories of customers who have mentioned toys they purchased from other retailers that were covered in pubic hair.
Good Vibrations, another sex toy retailer, doesn’t maintain its own recycling incentive program. But according to Coyote Days, it is conscientious about seeing that their returns for defective merchandise are properly processed.
I had to ask: Would it be such a bad idea to just throw those vibrators in with the rest of the recycling?
“It’s not even that it’s a bad idea,” says Days, “There’s still just a stigma around items for personal use, so when you try to call an e-waste place or try to figure out how to dispose of it, you’re met with the same types of attitudes we see pervasive in mainstream American culture: shame, people laugh, or get freaked out you’re talking about this product and you want me to touch it?”
Finding a waste facility to even pick up their returns was difficult. She went through ten before she could get a taker.
“I had called so many others, and they would have like a moment of silence, maybe a little laughter. I think that’s the reason because of the pervasive embarrassment and shame around intimate products.”
At Good Vibrations, the returns aren’t a huge endeavor, she says. “We don’t have some overflowing room with defective sex toys.” But that’s because they take pains not to contract out with manufacturers who make a shoddy product likely to be returned, and across the board, the quality of toys has gotten better anyway. “The quality of a $20 vibrator is much higher than it used to be even ten years ago,” she says.
At Lovehoney, returns and recycling represent a much bigger operation. The laws about what can and must be recycled differ between countries, and in the UK, the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment regulations mandate that households recycle electrical items. Lovehoney co-founder Richard Longhurst explained it to me: “You’re not supposed to throw your old toaster, hair dryer, or vibrator in the bin.”
Recognizing that people might demur at bringing their butt plugs down to the local recycling center, Lovehoney began its Rabbit Amnesty program in 2007. When you send your old toy in, you get credit toward your next purchase.
Andrea Bartlett in Lovehoney’s returns department says they get about 20 to 30 items a week. In total, they’ve processed thousands of toys, “which means fewer rabbits on landfills and more money in our customer’s pockets. Everyone is a winner.” (See a video of the process here.)
In the UK, sex toy retailers don’t need to act as the middleman, but it does help.
“People can recycle their toys in their own electrical rubbish bin if they are not too embarrassed, they can find out from their local council what will be picked up but I guess as long as it is battery operated [or plugged in] it is classed as electrical,” says Bartlett. “People can also take their sex toys to electrical recycling centers but many are too shy to do so, so they send them to us to do for them. Some of our customers find it extremely sad when it comes to sending their treasured rabbits off to the sex toy graveyard, but by offering them a discount on their new one, the whole experience is much less difficult.”
It seems like a lot of extra steps to go through, but for some people, it’s worth it.
“I think it depends on what your life priorities are,” Lamon says. “If you think recycling and waste management generally is important, and you consume a lot of sex toys, it absolutely should be important to you. If you think the apocalypse is near and nothing matters, well, then you should burn them in your backyard. We think it is important, and we couldn’t live without ourselves knowing we were contributing to the environment in a negative way.”
Good Vibrations shares a similar mission. “We have a mission, education-based, not about just about pleasure, but safety and wellness overall, so taking that one step further, it’s important we have a full circle life cycle for these products,” Days tells me.
If you don’t live near any of these stores, and can’t find a sex-positive retailer nearby that can point you in the right direction, Days recommends contacting your local e-waste disposal center and ask them what can be done.
“The best bet is for people concerned about this is to contact your local e-waste providers, get to know them, and help de-stigmatize this industry.”
Thank you vice.com for the article!