When my mom was little she and her four siblings would be sardined into the back of her parents’ car with no car seats or seat belts to drive several hours to see relatives (in Texas in the summer without air conditioning!). As a baby I had a car seat, but never a booster (we just put the shoulder strap behind our backs). When I was 11 we moved from Tulsa to Ithaca and I rode 1200 miles in the back of our station wagon without a seat belt.
Fortunately we all survived. But lots of people didn’t. In fact the CDC reports that motor vehicle injuries are a leading cause of death among children in the United States. Car seats can reduce the risk of death to infants and toddlers by 54% and booster seats can reduce the risk of serious injury by 45% compared to seat belts alone (Child Passenger Safety, CDC, retrieved 1/28/2016). These rates are higher if car seats are used properly – these statistics factor in misuse. It’s no wonder my generation is car seat obsessed!
One of my major pregnancy activities with my first was deciding what car seat I wanted to use and I spent hours researching my options. Over the years we’ve been gifted at least six car seats, and have bought several more. Recently we ended up with three infant car seats so I went to sell the oldest one, which had been used by three of my kids.
Within a few minutes someone posted that if I’d bought the car seat in 2008 it had probably expired. I looked it up and she was right. Somewhere I had it in my mind that they expired after 10 years but it turns out that most seats expire after 6 to 7 years (though some manufacturers are extending their expiration dates to 10 years).
I was feeling skeptical about it because it seems very convenient for the car seat manufacturers to create an arbitrary date in order to sell more car seats. A writer for the New York Times wondered the same thing. She interviewed a compliance and safety manager from Graco who said that it’s not an issue with the plastic itself, but with safety standards that change and that other components of the car seat can deteriorate. The plastic itself is thought to be good for 10 years. To read the rest of that article, click here.
As an aside, I’m still a little confused about the safety standards. LATCH (a way to hook the car seat directly to the car rather than use the seat belt) was created so that car seats are easier to install. But they say that if your vehicle doesn’t have LATCH, it’s just as safe to use a seat belt. Huh? I prefer LATCH but apparently it’s a standard that doesn’t technically make anything safer – it just might if you are more likely to install a car seat correctly using it. It’s a bit convoluted. And my 8 year old car seat had LATCH.
So I still feel a bit skeptical about the car seat expiration issue. We can definitely assume car seat standards change (see below), but whether they change substantially in 10 years is up for debate. However, I can see that they could potentially wear out over time and you wouldn’t know until your child was injured in an accident. Most of us want to keep our kids safe, so we can’t use our car seats forever. When we replace a car we often keep the car seat, using them indefinitely but now we’re learning that we shouldn’t. So what do you do with a car seat that no one is supposed to use?
I searched high and low for car seat recycling thinking it would be an easy thing to find. It turns out it is not. Very few places in the entire country recycle car seats because recycling requires that each material be handled separately and car seats are made of styrofoam, plastic, fabric and metal all fastened together.
So what are you options?
Confession: I just threw out two car seats before my zero waste epiphany. I’m bummed about it because if I’d spent just a little more time searching I would have found out that 20 minutes of my time could have kept them out of a landfill.
So here are your options:
1. Disassemble the car seat yourself and take it to your nearest recycling facility
It takes about 20 minutes to disassemble one according to this video.
You can’t recycle the components curbside but in Rochester, you can then take all the components to the Ecopark in Henrietta for a one stop drop off. If you live somewhere else, google around to see if you can find a place that accepts components (plastic, metal, styrofoam and fabric).
If you happen to live on the West Coast you have more options. Cool Mom in Seattle has partnered with Zero Waste Washington to create a recycling program. Obviously you need to be in Seattle to use it (hi Tara!) but it’s a great model program if anyone around here has some eco-passion and some free time.
2. Short on time? There are a few mail in programs.
Mail your carseat in to Baby Earth Renew, just pay shipping.
A progressive car seat company called Clek accepts their car seats back for a $40 fee. The next time you buy a car seat, you may want to consider supporting them.
3. NOT the Babies R Us Great Trade in Event
Babies R Us has the Great Trade in Event annually at “certain locations” and they sort of lead you to believe the car seats will be recycled but they are not. They are just disposed of. Clearly it’s a gimmick to encourage people to buy car seats at their stores and it’s incredibly misleading.
According to Earth 911 the number of car seats manufactured is not publicly available, but by rough calculation they estimate that as many as 12 million car seats are sold annually. Car seats are bulky and weigh around 20 lbs, so that could be around 240 million pounds worth of car seats eventually headed for a landfill. If each of us spent a few minutes to disassemble them, we could keep that many out of landfills when they’re past their prime. You can also vote with your wallet by supporting companies like Clek or buying extended life car seats that are good for at least 10 years.
Would you spend the time to disassemble a car seat and recycle the components? Or do you think there are better solutions? Leave your comments below!