You’ve probably seen used children’s car seats left by the side of a road or propped up next to a garbage can. As an environmentally conscious mom of a toddler, I’m acutely aware of the fact that many of the 12 million child car seats Americans buy each year are not recycled, and are not reused by another toddler, just tossed in the trash (Source: Consumer Reports). To compound the problem of child car seat waste, each kid may go through 2-3 car seats before graduating to a seatbelt. Does this really have to be the case? I’ve got some concrete ideas about what else we can do.
The Child Car Seat Waste Problem Defined
Expiration Dates on Car Seats
The ‘industry protocol’ calls for buying new and trashing the old car seats, even if there might be some life left in the product. So car seats are stamped with expiration dates. If a car seat is expired, it is considered ‘unsafe.’ Recycling old car seats would help, but only a few programs exist in the U.S. (See details below to locate one near you).
No Secondhand Child Car Seats
Why the expiration dates? Why the caution against sharing or buying used car seats? Lots of reasons. Depending upon how a car seat has been stored, experts tell us the plastic could become brittle. Car seat components like straps, buckles and adjusters may be subjected to food or drink spills and cleaning agents, all of which might hinder their operation.
Further, secondhand car seats could be missing important parts or instruction manuals. They could have been involved in an accident (even unseen damage can affect the way a seat functions). They may fall short of current car seat safety standards, or they might have been recalled. So, as the history of any particular car seat becomes more difficult to verify over time, there’s no choice but to send it to the dump.
Creative Solutions to the Child Car Seat Waste Issue
All good reasons to be cautious, but the waste it entails suggests a need to rethink this. What can be done to make sure car seats don’t end up in a landfill? Here are four ideas to consider. Hopefully, we can start a conversation that can lead to practical action.
Waste Solution #1: Share Secondhand Car Seats Responsibly
Since the best idea is to keep a car seat in service for as long as possible, why not promote responsible sharing of what’s out there with a ‘system redesign’?
I found a new home for the infant car seat that my son quickly outgrew via a mommy group listserv in Brooklyn. It was in excellent condition, rarely used, never stored in the car, and it was 5 years short of expiration. I was confident the car seat could be safely given to another mom-in-need. But what would it take to make sure the new mom was equally as comfortable?
While there may be risks involved with sharing, there are also ways to minimize these risks. The general consensus is to never give away a used car seat that has been in an accident or one on which the straps have been compromised, even if the seat has not expired. The other important thing is to know the car seat’s history and check online to see if it has ever been recalled.
My idea to eliminate all of this guesswork is to create a numbering system to identify individual child car seats, like Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs). Then only certified technicians would be permitted to perform safety checks and enter information into the system. This way people could track the history of a car seat and see if it’s ever been involved in any crashes or recalled – its record available for anyone to view, similar to CarFax vehicle history reports.
But until my Utopian vision becomes a reality, please review this expert’s car seat safety guidelines to check to see if a used child car seat is safe – from both a buyer’s and seller’s perspective. If you strictly adhere to these recommendations, it may be possible to give your used car seat another home safely and responsibly. My suggestion is to thoroughly assess it before you trash it.
Waste Solution #2: Design Car Seats for Durability and Enhanced Utility
Instead of using materials that can breakdown, let’s make car seats from durable materials – and to give them added utility, let’s make them all convertible. My son’s first plastic infant car seat had a six-year expiration date stamped on it (we used it for only 10 months), while the heavy steel-reinforced convertible car seat he’s riding in now is good for 10 years.
In fact, the model we opted for is so well-constructed, it could have been the only car seat we ever needed to purchase – because it came with an infant insert and turns into a booster for up to 120 pounds. Think of the waste-savings if every car seat was convertible and lasted a decade! (See insert and link for details)
If all car seats were constructed with durable materials that could eventually be recycled, then we could certainly solve the car seat waste problem. So instead of manufacturers simply putting on expiration dates and “recommending that expired car seats be discarded” at the end of their useful lives, manufacturers could assume ‘extended producer responsibility’ for their wares.
If the sound of a more durable car seat sounds pricey, one solution is to change the business model so they can be leased, instead of purchased outright. Car rental companies already provide a car seat for an extra fee, and AAA in New York has a car seat lending program for its members.
If car seats were leased, they could be made from more durable materials, manufacturers could perform critical safety checks before the seat goes back out into the market again, and all child car seats could be used as long as possible before they were deemed ‘unsafe’ due to wear and tear. And who knows – leasing instead of buying multiple child seats might just bring the total cost of use down, too.
Waste Solution #4: Require Manufacturers to Take an Active Role in Recycling Car Seats
25 U.S. States now force manufacturers of electronics like TVs and computers to design their products for disassembly and recycling; presumably because they are not deemed so hazardous to landfills, similar laws have not been enacted for car seats.
One car seat company that has closed the loop on its products is Clek, a Canadian manufacturer. Clek offers a recycling program for all of their child passenger safety seats. For a $40 shipping and handling charge, customers can mail back expired or damaged car seats, and they will receive a $40 voucher toward the purchase of a new seat. Clek’s warehouse operations team dismantles each returned seat and separates all of the components, which are then sent off either to be reused or recycled (Learn more about Clek and its recycling program here).
This is a commendable first step, but what about a mandatory system whereby ALL expired or damaged car seats are returned to ALL major car seat manufacturers (e.g. Britax, Graco, etc.) for proper dismantling and recycling?
Until producers claim responsibility, consumers need to take the lead by shipping their used car seats to one of the few recycling centers in the United States. For instance, there’s Baby Earth’s Renew program in Austin, TX (http://www.babyearth.com/renew), and recycling centers for used, damaged and/or expired car seats in cities like Seattle, Portland and LA – and elsewhere throughout the U.S. (Link here for a handy list compiled by Zero Waste Washington and CoolMom). Local efforts are inspiring, but we need a critical mass.
What do you think? What are your ideas to help solve the car seat waste problem?
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