Of all the equipment new parents acquire, an infant car seat is the only one required by law.
But as kids get bigger, so do their safety seats. State child restraint laws extend to up to age eight in some places, which means that as they grow, kids pass through two or three types of seats before they’re permitted to wear a standard seat belt.
So, where do all those old hulking pieces of molded plastic, foam, fabric and metal end up?
In most cases, the landfill.
According to a recent Earth911 reader poll, 96 percent of parents do not know how to recycle a car seat and would like to learn how, but only a handful of programs exist nationwide.
“It’s scandalous and upsetting,” says Portland parent Renee Limon, co-founder of the blog Enviromom. “For people like me who try to live responsibly how do you do it?”
Hand-me-downs no more
Handing down an old seat (or buying a used one) isn’t a true option, either. Car seat companies like Graco and Britax issue each seat with an expiration date - typically 5-6 years from the manufacture date - because the materials degrade from ultraviolet light (intensified through car windows) and use over time, compromising safety. Plus, just like bike helmets, car seats should not be reused after an accident.
In fact, Limon recently recycled one of her child’s old car seats, but she knows that’s a rare case: Portland is home to one of the nation’s only established programs, Legacy Health Recycling Center, run in-house by the city’s Legacy Health hospital system.
Under the supervision of environmental waste manager Bill Clark, Legacy coordinates nine drop-off locations, disassembles the hard foam and plastic, and then passes them on to the recycling market. Since its start a few years ago, the program has recycled more than 4,000 infant, toddler and booster seats.
That’s encouraging, but a drop in the bucket considering the millions of seats sold. Industry figures were unavailable – and the major seat manufacturers Earth911 contacted declined to comment for this story – but by rough calculation, with 4 million babies born in the U.S. annually, and each requiring three child restraint seats before age eight, Americans buy as many as 12 million seats a year.
About 90 percent of those materials are recyclable, but there are barriers to setting up a program, says Bill Flinchbaugh, who directs the Colorado Children's Automobile Safety Association-Foundation in Boulder, Colo.
“Recyclers don’t see the benefits,” Flinchbaugh says. “You pay $100 for the seat [in the store], and now you have 10-15 pounds of plastic that’s worth maybe 10-15 cents a pound. You have to get a lot of plastic together to make it worth their while.”
The Colorado program recycles about 4,000 seats annually, but even with a deep bench of community volunteers and partners to help disassemble and transport the material, just breaks even.
“If the price of gas goes up, we can’t do it. The margin is that thin,” Flinchbaugh says.
Legacy's Bill Clark says they're able to pass on the car seat plastic to recyclers because of the volume of the hospital system's overall recycling, which includes electronics and the blue plastic from sterile surgical instruments.
"It's almost a courtesy on their part," Clark says. "Car seats are such a cumbersome product to deal with."
Who's responsibility is it?
The Illinois Department of Transportation considered the idea of a state-wide recycling program, but encountered similar problems, according to Jennifer Toney of the traffic safety division.
“Recyclers wouldn’t accept the plastic, and the facilities that we did find were too far away - we’d have to take them out of state,” Toney says. “It didn’t make financial sense.”
Also the public is generally unaware that the seats expire in the first place and don’t recognize the need to recycle them from a safety perspective.
“I never even heard of it until now,” says Chicago mom Shelley Davis, who, like most parents we talked to for this story, has donated old seats to local charity in the past.
The solution, observers suggest, needs to start with the manufacturer. European Union nations, for example, have widely adopted laws that force producers to be accountable for the lifecycle of the product, a strategy called extended producer responsibility.
“When the burden is on the producer, it’s amazing how quickly they change their design process.” says sustainable design consultant Peter Nicholson of Foresight Design Group.
“If you wanted to, you could make those seats last 100 years. Have you seen those high-end baby strollers? They’re designed like F16 fighter jets and probably with some of the same components.”
Instead, car seats are built for what designers call “planned obsolescence,” and with tightly bound organic and inorganic materials that make them difficult to disassemble and recycle.
Manufacturers also might change their tune sooner if they recognized parents’ frustration as a market advantage, says Enviromom’s Renee Limon.
“I might be more inclined to buy a Britax seat, for example, if I knew they used recycled plastic or would help me recycle it.”