Car Seat Recycling

Car seats are one of the most difficult categories to get rid of responsibly and we recently spoke with the creator of the to learn why. We get questions on this category often and the consumer demand for seeing car seats recycled is not surprising. Car seats are large (often larger than a household trash can) and there are millions of them sold each year. Volume is so high because they are mandatory and also because the average child uses 3 of them before ‘graduating’ to a standard seat belt. This means that if we can find a recycling solution for them, the reduction in landfill usage from this category alone could be meaningful. Owen’s List is here to try and make that happen!

Why Car Seats are hard to recycle and reuse

The purpose of car seats is to keep children safe and that leads manufacturers to find the right combination of materials to do that effectively. Rigid plastic makes up the bulk of a car seat. This material is often recyclable, but can be connected with other materials like cloth and metal and many times these must be separated prior to being accepted by a recycler. Car seat makers need to fasten these securely and that can mean extensive labor to disassemble the components.

Car seats have an expiration date because studies have shown they lose effectiveness as their components age. In many cases, expiration is 6 years from manufacturing dates. That means that, even though a car seat may look to be in good condition, it should not be passed on to another child. If a car seat has been in accident, it definitely should not be reused and should be treated the same way as one that has expired. Some cities (like Seattle with WestSide Baby) have organizations that will accept car seat donations when they are not expired and have not been in an accident and this is the best option if it is available. These organizations have volunteers or staff that are trained in inspecting car seats to see if they can still be used and it’s important that this level of oversight exists for any donation recipient.

Why Car Seats Shouldn’t go in the landfill

Car seats contain materials like plastic and metal that can be recycled, so any components that can be recovered through recycling means less virgin material is needed for downstream uses. Because car seats are so large, diverting many of them away from landfills would extend the lifetime of the landfills we already have preventing the need to create new ones. Additionally, car seats often contain flame retardant and other chemicals that could be released if not handled properly. Many recyclers take precautions to avoid potentially harmful effects from these chemicals and we are less certain about what happens when old car seats are sent to landfills.

What Happens When Car Seats Get Recycled

Three methods currently exist for recycling car seats: dismantling, shredding, and baling. Dismantling is when people separate the different materials from each other. Studies have shown this takes 15-30 minutes for each car seat and the end result is metal and plastic that can both be recycled. Shredding is another tactic that involves less labor, but the end result is less valuable materials. Rather than ending up with a single type of plastic like with dismantling, shredding results in a mixed-grade type of plastic that has fewer uses and less value. Baling is the final option and involves combining car seats with other similar material that is sent overseas in a large bale. The resulting bale is designed to have a dominant materials and some buyers are ok with small amounts of other materials as long as they do not exceed a certain threshold. Recent events in recycling markets have cast doubt over this method as overseas buyers are demanding less contaminated bales.

Past Car Seat Recycling Programs

In the Seattle area, car seat recycling has been available intermittently. For a time, WestSide Baby collected car seats, reused what could be legally and safely, and then partnered with Ikea to get the car seats to a facility in Oregon that recycled what was left over. This program ended, but Total Reclaim supported a similar one at times in partnership with both WestSide Baby and Recology. Changes in the recycling markets made these unsustainable and they too ended. The lone program during 2017 and 2018 that we learned about was a temporary one between Target and TerraCycle. Collection bins could be found at many local Targets in September 2017 and TerraCycle handled the processing. As an added bonus, customers taking in expired car seats also received a discount on the purchase of a new car seat. Don’t be fooled by a similar trade-in program offered by Babies-R-Us – anything collected through this program is not recycled! The best hope we have for a car seat recycling program is if a corporate partner (like Target) runs a program in the future where they provide a subsidy.

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