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.
Waste Solution #3: Lease Car Seats Instead of Purchasing
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.
Let’s figure out some solutions that can help us protect our kids now and in the future.
What do you think? What are your ideas to help solve the car seat waste problem?
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Wow, reading this post really opened my eyes to many things I was unaware of. Being only 22 years old, I won’t be worrying about kids for quite some time, but there were things in your solutions that really stood out to me. Solution #3 about leasing instead of purchasing outright just makes so much sense in the case of car seats, and so many other instances. I think the idea of ‘sharing rather than owning’ really applies to so many aspects of our lives, and especially children’s lives. They grow out of everything so quickly; toys, clothes, shoes, car seats! If there was a sharing market for these types of things the savings would be immense. Something similar that came to mind while I was reading through the post was the maternity site MineForNine.com. The site let’s you borrow maternity clothing for much cheaper than the retail price for extended periods of time (similar to Rent The Runway for non-maternity clothes). The thought process is simple: why waste money and resources on permanent things for temporary times in our lives? Just like car seats! Thanks for this, Jenny!
The problem with leasing is we become dependent on the lessors to put the safety of our children above profits. Sorry, but I don’t have that much trust. We won’t find out that they are not worthy of that trust until after someone child is hurt, maimed or killed. I’d rather spend the $100+ for a brand new one than have my child be the one in the news report about a disreputable child car seat lessor. The same would be the case for manufacturers taking on such a role. The profit margin will always be the top priority, no matter what they say. Designing better, longer-lasting car seats will up the price even higher than it already is. Again, someone has to pay for that additional durability and enhanced utility and I assure you, it won’t be the manufacturer. Sharing responsibly can not possibly account for the deterioration that naturally occurs with normal usage and the person sharing may not know there is a problem. While I understand the desire to not create more child car seat waste, there are some things that are more important.
Thanks for raising awareness about what’s out there and what to do about it. Seat makers could take some experience from grownup car seats. Most carmakers make theirs with soy-based materials, and Ford is even exploring making them from shredded US currency. Still, reuse conserves more resources than making new ones, even with green materials.
Great read! I think that there has been a strong inclination over the past 5 years or so of attempting to mitigate waste by developing new, innovative car seats that are labeled as ‘convertible.’ In this context, the term ‘convertible’ means that a singular car seat grows with a child. As a child transitions from baby to toddler, the car seat is adjusted. This addresses the issue of waste to some extent, but obviously integrating leasing, recycling programs, as well as durable/ recyclable materials, among other green elements, can further address the problem of waste as it pertains to car seats.
I think that these are some smart solutions to the car seat waste problem. I don’t know why people rarely take second hand seats even if they are in a perfect condition. this is insanity! I think that the solutions in this article are more that amazing.
Not having any kids has made me completely unaware of the problem. I had no idea expiration dates existed for carseats, and after reading why it makes sense. As great as it would be to have the producer recycle (despite them being able to reuse many of the parts) the produce would not take that responsibility especially cost wise. I think the best way to reduce car seat waste in the long run would be to increase public transportation. Yes, New York has a great sysyem in tack, but most city rely mostly on cars. If public transprtation was increased (busses and trains) it would allow the number of car seats in landfills to decrease.
The idea of leasing a car seat might not be such a good one as the car seats will often get dirty; well they are going to be used by babies.
Jenny, I loved your post! Thank you for pushing this issue in the public space. I am part of a group called Old Car Seat, New Life that received a grant from Washington State’s Department of Ecology to find a better solution to car seat recycling in King County (where Seattle is located). We have been working on the grant for the last 18 months and are passionate about this issue. We are thrilled to hear about this group and hope we can contribute to it.
We have developed a website that we hope will be a resource for folks across the country. You’ll find a section where we have listed all the recycling programs that we know of. We’d love to hear of more if you know them: http://recycleyourcarseat.org/where-do-i-recycle-my-seat/
We have also been hard at work on an issue paper that we hope will be a great resource for folks trying to start programs in other areas. We hope it will save you some trouble untangling some of the issues involved in these fairly difficult to recycle items.
We are also in discussions with some manufacturers about their interest in a pilot recycling program in King County. We sent letters to all the major manufacturers and have had further discussions with several interested parties. We are hopeful!
We look forward to further discussions and progress with this group!
Old Car Seat, New Life
Hi Jenny, I’m not sure we have much to add to the fantastic work you’ve done on car seat waste solutions, but I wanted to share this with you just in case. As Brooke mentioned, the Old Car Seat, New Life team is pleased to announce the release of our issue paper, “Diverting Car Seats from the Waste Stream: An Investigation into the Reuse and Recycling of Children’s Car Seats.” The link can be found here:
This issue paper examines the challenges and solutions associated with recycling car seats, investigates the possibilities for safe car seat reuse, and tackles higher-level issues like manufacturer involvement, emerging materials, financing, and different ways of processing car seats for recycling. Additionally, it examines different programs that currently offer car seat recycling, identifying their collection and ownership models.
Information about current recycling programs can also be found on our website (http://recycleyourcarseat.org/ – Where Do I Recycle My Seat). We encourage everyone to share these resources with others who are interested in car seat reuse and recycling.
Kimberly Christensen, Project Manager
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Great article, Jenny. Your writing talent remains exemplary! What time will you be home for dinner? Love, Dad
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Jenny – what a great article! I love that you lay out the issue clearly, and then offer a variety of tangible solutions. Too often I read articles exploring a sustainability-related challenge, and the only solution offered is to throw more money at the problem! It’s great that you offer multiple implementable, low cost (or even profit-producing) solutions, and address the challenges of each one. A very thoughtful piece!
This article also ties in nicely with Jacqueline’s piece entitled “R-R-Redundancy: A New “R” to Heed” in mentioning the sharing/borrowing/renting economy and its costs and benefits. I hope we all have a more cooperative future to look forward to!
This addresses the issue of waste to some extent, but obviously integrating leasing, recycling programs, as well as durable/ recyclable materials, among other green elements, can further address the problem of waste as it pertains to car seats.
As I completely agree that one can reduce child seats from landing in landfills by getting a second-hand one whose straps are not compromised, I believe that one can also keep cars getting into landfills by selling them for scrap parts. There are recycling companies that reuse the metal and turn it into reusable metal to use for metal products. Not only will this reduce one’s carbon footprint, but it can also help get extra income from selling an old junk car as well.