Done with Barbie? How to reuse or recycle old dolls

Bright pink clothing has been a hot item at a number of Brotherhood of St Laurence (BSL) op shops as movie-goers doll up to see Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.

Kelly McMurray, an area store manager for BSL, says “a lot of 18 – 35 year old women have been coming in to get outfits for premier parties. 

“It’s been really fun helping people to find their outfits!”  

The movie has set off a global Barbiecore mania, pinkifying everything and driving demand for more plastic dolls and toy company merchandise.

Even before the movie, the global population of Barbies was growing by around 100 new dolls every minute

Which begs the question: what to do with all those dolls once the gloss of the movie ultimately wears off?

For toys still in good condition, reusing them by donating to friends or op shops is an obvious first choice.

“Our stores do receive a lot of toys every year,” McMurray says.

“The peak of our toy donations would be in the New Year and the second week of every school holidays – when people have either been gifted new toys (after Christmas) and when they have had time to do a clean out – hence the second week of school holidays.” 

For those seeking a more sustainable supply of Barbie dolls, accessories or merchandise, McMurray suggests visiting one of the bigger BSL stores, as those tend to receive the bulk of toy donations.

In Melbourne, the Deer Park op shop has two large sections dedicated to kids toys and clothes, while the Belmont store has been receiving – and selling – a lot of Barbie DVDs.

When donating Barbies, or any kind of doll or toy, McMurray says people need to really consider if the toy is in a suitable condition, and isn’t missing any body parts. 

“A little wear and tear is ok. But if people have any doubts about it – best not to include it in their donations.”

For those ‘weird Barbies’ past the point of no return, recycling is the next best option. 

Research by retailer Flora & Fauna suggests Australians send 26.8 million toys to landfill every year.

Plastic toys are considered harder to recycle than many regular household items, and can not be put in kerbside recycling bins.

Global recycling company TerraCycle offers a toy recycling program for worn out and broken toys in partnership with department store Big W. It’s called ‘Toys for Joy’.

Marina Antoniozzi, TerraCycle’s head of operations, says the initiative saw over 18 tonnes of old toys collected in the first year of trial operations in 2021. 

The program has now collected well over 160 tonnes of toys, she says.

“The majority of toys are not kerbside recyclable due to the complex nature of their composition. Toys are frequently made up of several materials including different types of plastics and metals, which means they need to be manually sorted and separated,” Antoniozzi says.

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Toys awaiting recycling / Credit: Supplied, TerraCycle

The recycling company partners with toy brands and retailers because the cost to collect and process the material is usually more than the value of raw material produced through the recycling process.

In Barbie’s case, the doll is made up of a complex mix of different types of plastics

According to a study by Italian researchers early dolls made between 1959 and 1976 comprised a complex mix of different polymers: polyvinyl chloride faces and legs; hair from polyvinylidene dichloride; and torsos made from low-density polyethylene. 

More modern dolls have arms of ethylene-vinyl acetate (also used in thongs, and frozen food packaging), torsos of acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (also found in Lego), legs from polypropylene, and heads made of hard vinyl (like the kind used in vinyl records). 

Once collected, the toys sent to TerraCycle for recycling are checked in at TerraCycle’s Materials Recovery Facility where they are manually sorted, separated into individual material streams and prepared for processing.

Antoniozzi says that in Australia, TerraCycle processes Barbie dolls and accessories along with other hard plastic toys. These are sent to recycling facilities to be shredded and cleaned. 

Residual metals are removed using magnets in a process called eddy current separation. 

The plastics are then sorted into different types using technologies like near infrared, a spectroscopy technique used for analysing and differentiating between polymers.

Afterwards, the separated, shredded plastics go through a melting and extrusion process producing recycled plastic pellets, used by manufacturers to make a variety of products.

So, when Barbie goes to the recycling plant, she will ultimately be sorted, shredded, melted and turned into plastic pellets.

Antoniozzi says donating toys is a good first option. 

“But if your Barbie is genuinely beyond repair, then you can take her, Ken, Sandy, as well as all her horses, buses, apartments and accessories along to your local BIG W store and give her a second life through the Toys for Joy recycling program,” she says.

“Who knows… she may come back to you as a flower pot.” 

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