Love & Sex

Inside the Complicated World of Recycling Sex Toys

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How to masturbate without clogging a landfill.

Far past being de-stigmatized, sex toys are now an expanding industry, worth an estimated $15 billion globally. CVS, Walgreens, Kroger, Safeway, Target, and Walmart are now lining their shelves with discreetly packaged vibrators. Financial news outlets like CNBC have touted toys as a boom industry while the rest of the economy continues to go limp. The advent of Fleshlights and prostate stimulators means that adult pleasure items are now also helping men through lonely nights, and it is apparently not beneath The New York Times to address baby boomers’ anxiety that their adult kids will come across a certain nightstand drawer or box beneath the bed after they’ve gone on to meet Jim Morrison and Jerry Garcia in the great Woodstock in the sky.

We, as a nation, are amassing huge collections of dildos, pocket pussies, and butt plugs. But as sex toys are becoming more common, there is still no easy way to recycle them. Our increasing comfort with item-assisted sexual pleasure isn’t keeping up with our increasing desire to live sustainably. Sex toys are often made with a variety of specialized materials to make them soft and/or non-porous (which means they won’t trap bodily fluids). These are a bit beyond the usual plastic, paper, glass, and aluminum collected by most municipal recycling programs. 

“It is not the materials themselves that are the problem,” says Patty Moore, CEO of Sonoma, California-based Moore Recycling Associates. “It is the lack of a collection and processing infrastructure. Almost any material can be recycled if you have a cost-effective collection, consolidation, and processing infrastructure. The hard part is getting enough in one place in a form that can be converted to new raw materials at a cost that is lower than virgin prices.” 

Then there is the issue of sanitation. Moore says a recycler — be it a private company like hers or a department of a local government — “would need some proof that they are not a bio-hazard which essentially eliminates all post-consumer toys.” Before sex toys could be processed, someone would need to roll up his or her sleeves and soak them in something like a bleach solution, an undertaking that would be time-consuming and, of course, a little weird.

Even North Carolina-based Adam and Eve, a behemoth in the industry with a bustling website and 58 retail stores, says it can’t feasibly recycle all the sex toys returned under its satisfaction guarantee (which are of course not re-sellable). 

“We have researched it, but we have not found a North Carolina company that recycles sex toys,” says Katy Zvolerin, Adam and Eve’s director of public relations (who assured me that the company’s home office does have a “robust” recycling program that responsibly sends paper, glass, plastics, cans, and DVDs back into the circle of post-consumer life). The company had 34,530 returns against 2,193,313 orders last year. That mass of unusable sex toys was simply put into a trash compactor and crushed. 

(I also emailed Too Tumid, Liberator, and Xandria, all online retailers that also have satisfaction guarantees, to ask if they dumpster their returns but none was willing to answer.)

But sex toy recycling can be done — and has been done by a few smaller adult retailers, able and willing to invest the time and money and also withstand the snickering from the recycling companies they solicit. 

In the U.K., where the law mandates that all electronic items be disposed of via recycling, Love Honey offers discounts to customers who send in unwanted vibrators. The Bath-based pleasure shop then sends them to an electronics recycling company called SWEEEP, which claims to have recycled 20 tons of vibrators. (It’s explained in this handy, educational video-style clip.)  

Toronto’s Come As You Are, “the only co-operatively run sex shop in the world,” runs a program to recycle its customers’ old toys, offering a 15-percent-off coupon to anyone who brings one in. “The process is expensive and arduous,” says Jack Lamon, one of the worker-owners of the shop, “but because we are an anti-capitalist co-operative with no profit incentive, we're able to do such things without our shareholders becoming irate.”

Still, Come As You Are can’t take all toys. The co-op recycles batteries and ABS plastics with private companies and electronics with the City of Toronto. It is collecting and sterilizing silicone with plans to repurpose it someday. But it turns away anything made of plasticized rubber and non-silicone elastomers. Lamon says non-silicone, non-porous toys — like those made of stainless steel or glass — get donated to a “Toronto sex workers action project” for its “annual sex toy swap fundraiser” (sex worker unions and toy swap fundraisers both apparently being things in the amazing land of Canada). 

Taking on the task in the States is Scarlet Girl, which sells new sex toys both online and through “pleasure parties” a la Tastefully Simple or Stella and Dot. The company, based in Portland (of course), has a comprehensive program to recycle sex toys that its customers send in. They get a $10 coupon for future purchases for each shipment (in addition to the comfort of knowing their masturbation habits are not filling up landfills).  

The program started in 2009 and took about a year and a half of research and planning to implement, says Vicki Kriner, one of the founders of the company. “We had to build it from the ground up,” she says. “It took a lot of phone calls over the months. We dealt with a lot of laughter and I am sure it caused a bit of a buzz out there, pardon the pun.” 

The Scarlet Girl program shows that recycling sex toys in the U.S. is possible but also very complicated. Their headquarters now has a room filled with used toys. To enter this area, an employee must wear non-porous gloves, a face shield and a disposable protective coverall, like a Tyvek biohazard suit. This despite the fact that Scarlet Girl asks participants to, before sending the objects, sanitize them themselves by soaking them in a 10-percent bleach solution and then letting them air dry. Adherence to this policy is strong, but “you have to be prepared for anything,” says Kriner. Lest you think this is overkill for handling old dildos, the procedure was drawn up with input from an environmental engineer and a bloodborne pathogens specialist. And these items are never resold, given out, or reused again as sex toys. (The company even declined a request from an artist for two to three shopping bags of them for a piece.) 

Scarlet Girl spends two days each month processing the used items. They (re)sanitize them and break them down into raw materials — soft plastics, hard plastics, metal, electronics, microchips (yes, vibrators have microchips) and others. During one of its busiest months, they worked through more than 500 pounds of toys, enough to fill about nine barrel drums. 

The company has consorted with outside recyclers to take the raw materials. Kriner preferred not to give out any specifics as to how many partners they enlisted. She also declined to say if Scarlet Girl is making or losing money on the endeavor but did say, “It’s more about environmental responsibility and the values of our customers than anything else.” 

As for why these items are no longer wanted, she says, “Most are electronics that have broken down. Toys on the lower price point tend not to last that long…I also assume some people get rid of things once they have new partners. It’s never a good idea to share toys between partners.”

So, if you’re too shy to come into an electronics repair shop with a busted Jack Rabbit or can’t bear to touch the Magic Wand your ex once pressed against you, you do have the option of shipping it up to Portland. Still, despite the ubiquity of sex toys, if you place your old Jelly Dong in a blue bin, most recycling programs won’t be able to offer you much more than a bemused look from your street’s sanitation worker. 

Images via Planet Ivy and Scarlet Girl.

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