By Alison Neumer Lara on Jan 31, 2011

Roadblocks to Car Seat Recycling

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The average car seat only lasts five to six years. Do you know what you'll do with yours once it's obsolete?

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.”

Related articles
What is a Producer’s Responsibility?
N.J. Parent Starts Car Seat Recycling Program

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Comments

  1. tate says

    Cradle to Cradle design. Whoever builds it should be responsible for it after its usable life. Manufacturers should create an avenue for it to be returned or sent somewhere. This will not only lower the amount going to the landfill, but also encourage manufacturers to make them more durable/longer lasting and better for our environment.
    Tate

  2. Sean R. Cordaro Sr says

    I think that having car seats made with recyclable material and be recycled after that have out grown thier use is an awesome idea. I also think it’s about time we go after the federal government to start mandating products that are made of plastics to make them recycable.

  3. Melissa says

    I have strongly believed for a loooong time govt needs to mandate recycling and own the responsibility for our future. Yes, I know, who wants the govt to be involved in yet another aspect of our lives, but it really needs to happen, as a platform or base to start. Recycling facilities everywhere need the equipment to recycle all different kinds of recyclable material. It may be break-even, or non-profit, but we create jobs and save our planet in the meantime. And I believe if facilities could recycle more materials, it’d get more of each of those materials in more often which could potentially lead to a profit for those centers eventually. Everyone needs to be recycling every material that is recyclable. It should be illegal to throw a recyclable material away, just as it is to discard engine oil down the sewer… everyone adapted to that law… I truly believe if it was status-quo, people would recycle much more than they do, especially if their facility is capable of recycling the whole realm of recyclable materials. My local recycling facility is not capable of recycling plastic bottle caps, so i have to recycle them separately at Whole Foods. So the caps CAN be recycled… my local recycling facility should be able to do it too… think about how many plastic bottle caps each family on every street in every city are thrown away, unnecessarily, each day! Its sad to say the least. Not to mention the tons of other recyclable material that is thrown away each day all across the nation. My vote is for govt mandated recycling… now we just need a govt official to stand for it! O yes and lets also mention recycling included in local taxes instead of having to pay for it separately which we do and some of our friends and neighbors don’t participate because its an additional expense… it’d be cheaper if we all pooled in and did it together… and the city we used to live in credited our garbage pick up by the money they earned from our recyclables per year. We need more smart programs in our communities and I feel the government could seamlessly be the centralized authority to make that a reality!

  4. Robert says

    We installed 2 car seats to safely transport our grandchildren. When the kids got older…I tried, but local charities refused to take the car seats once we no longer needed them. Recyclers would not take them. The car seats are hanging in my garage now….waiting for a solution to recycle them.
    This is insane. I refuse to toss these big chunks of plastic into the landfill. Obviously, others have taken theirs to the curb. But the thought of millions of stupid old car seats…buried in the ground makes me uncomfortable. Does it bother you?
    Is there no profit in recycling millions and millions of these used…government mandated child savers? Strange isn’t it…the whole idea of recycling is not really about being “green” or sustainable or saving our children …but it’s about putting more green into someone pocket.

  5. Debbie says

    Alison – thanks for your artical on Car seat recycling. As a recycler I’ve had a couple of seats sitting in my garage wanting a better option then to throw the seats (over 5 years old) away. We certainly need producer responsiblity and leadership to deal with this issue.

    On a side note I think your estimate of 12 million car seats per year may be a bit high. As 3 seats needed until age 8 would not require three seats to be purchased per year and of course parents with children close in age there is a certain amount of passing down. But your point is taken in that the number of seats purchased annually is in the millions.

  6. Jenifer says

    As a recycling coordinator and a Certified Car Seat Technician, I can see both sides of the story. Planned obsolescence hasn’t been much of an issue when you consider the changes that have taken place in car seat technology in the last 3 decades. Testing has changed, laws have changed, and new data has come in that has encouraged manufacturers to make changes to their seat designs. We can keep kids rear facing longer and harnessed longer and in boosters until they are 4″9″ tall which is usually past 8 years old. Parents are looking for longer lasting seats and many manufacturers are listening. I would not want to put any child in a car seat made 10 years ago. Designs are getting better and safer. That said, I agree that manufacturers should take the lead bringing in outdated products and getting recycling programs in place.

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