Island of Misfit Toys

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Tybee Clean Beach Volunteers and local families come together to give new life to abandoned beach toys

Every week, Tim Arnold and the Tybee Clean Beach Volunteers remove trash from the beach that they then carefully sort and recycle, even the difficult items like the 150,000 cigarette butts they’ve collected since Arnold launched the organization in 2015. But some items, like perfectly good beach toys, cannot be recycled, nor should they end up in landfill. 

“I think most people don’t have any idea that toys are one of the top things left on the beach,” says Arnold. When toys are left behind, they’re quickly buried beneath the sand or carried into the ocean by the wind and waves. Then they degrade into microplastics that stay in the ocean and accumulate in the fish we eat. 

Although Arnold could take toys off the beach, he couldn’t find a productive outcome for the tubs of toys piling up in a mechanical closet behind the Tybee Marine Science Center. Arnold reached out to his volunteers for ideas. Lea Lynch, a local mother of two children, came up with a way to repurpose the toys and empower kids to break this cycle of waste.

In July 2019, Lynch organized an event with local families to have parents and kids come together to clean the hundreds of toys Tybee Clean Beach Volunteers had collected. “It was like a rainbow of beach toys laid out on this blue tarp at Memorial Park,” says Lynch. After the kids soaped and scrubbed all the beach toys, they let them dry in the warm Tybee Island sun before packing them into gift baskets they named “Crab Bag Grab Bags” and “Beach Bucket Bouquets.” The gift baskets were sold by the kids at the Tybee Island Farmers Market to raise money for Tybee Clean Beach. 

“Some people didn’t want to buy a bag or bouquet,” says Lynch. “They just wanted to give $20 toward the cause.” Lynch’s event and the hard work of the kids emptied out Arnold’s collection
of beach toys and raised more than $500 for Tybee Clean Beach
to continue improving our coastal community.

But there will always be families with a cart full of newly bought toys plodding across the beach, a trail of plastic behind them. “You know, they grew back,” says Arnold with a laugh. “So, I was like, ‘Lea, now what?’” Lynch’s next idea was the birth of Re-Beachables. Because of COVID restrictions, families performed individual cleanups and packed recovered beach toys into reusable bags for visitors to use when they visit Tybee instead of buying new beach toys. Arnold partnered with Mermaid Cottages on Tybee to leave the bags for guests with kids. Arnold also maintains take-a-toy/leave-a-toy borrow boxes at the Tybee Island Visitors Center and River’s End Campground.

“It’s finally a volunteer program centered around the kids and their interests,” says Lynch. “And because it’s toys, the kids can really relate to that.” Lynch sees the Re-Beachables program as filling a gap in the typical volunteer activities kids are involved in, like supply drives. “There’s a detachment there,” says Lynch. “I think the kids understand that they’re doing something helpful, but they’re really kind of tagging along.” In the Re-Beachables program, the kids are the focus. “The grownups are just there to help supervise and, you know, give them more soap,” says Lynch. 

Unfortunately, not all beach toys can be used in the Re-Beachables program. “Just from sorting them, I estimate about half are broken,” says Arnold. But Arnold is planning on a productive outcome for these broken toys, too. He’s ordered a plastic shredder and injection molds to give new life to these toys as coasters and animal pendants.  

“My ultimate goal is to help inspire others and show them that a small effort like this can make a big difference,” says Lynch. Her hope is that other communities like Tybee will start similar programs to engage kids in protecting the environment. “At its core, it’s really a very simple program,” says Lynch. “It’s a group of parents and kids trying to do what they can to help be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”