How to Dispose of Outgrown Child Car Seats

By DONNA DeFORBES/ecoRI News contributor

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a total of 3,932,181 births were registered in the United States in 2013. That’s nearly 4 million infant car seats required annually. Add to that the fact that a car seat needs to be upgraded several times as your child grows, and that’s a lot of plastic waste.

When my daughter outgrew her seat several years ago, the question arose: What do I do with it?

Can I donate it?
A car seat can only be passed on to someone else if: (1) It has never been in a moderate to severe crash (read the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s definition of car crashes) and (2) It has not gone past the manufacturer’s expiration date.

Most manufacturers list an expiration date on the seat, and if you can’t find one, six years is often considered the limit. Why? The materials degrade over time, especially from the intense ultraviolet light coming through car windows. This compromises their safety benefits.

If your outgrown car seat meets these requirements, then you can pass it on to a friend or family member. Most charitable organizations will not accept used car seats since they can’t be sure of their safety history.

Can I recycle it?
A few years ago, I contacted the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), manger of the Central Landfill, to find out about car seat recycling options since I couldn’t find anything on its website. The recycling program manager informed me that if I disassembled the car seat myself, I could then drop off the plastic and fabric components at their facility for recycling. Those parts aren’t accepted in the curbside recycling program.

Since then the RIRRC website has been updated to include this information about car seats:

“These should never be placed in your recycling bin or cart. However, they may be disassembled and parts dropped off at RIRRC’s Small Vehicle Area for recycling, for free. The cloth (so long as dry and odorless) can be placed in the ‘clothing’ bin, 100% metal components in the scrap metal pile, and the bulky plastic frame may be added to the container for rigid plastics. If you have everything separated as such, tell the attendant at the scale house that you have rigid plastics, textiles and metal (100% metal) for recycling.”

It took me all of 15 minutes to disassemble my daughter’s Graco convertible car seat (I was slightly disturbed by this) and to separate it into its plastic, fabric and metal components. Drop-off at the RIRRC was easy.

I was happy to discover that car seat recycling is an option in Rhode Island. It’s a challenge to find car seat recycling programs across the nation, because it’s usually not cost-efficient for municipalities to operate them. The return they receive on recycling the components — about 15 cents a pound — isn’t enough to offset the staffing cost to disassemble and separate car seats.

However, some municipalities will offer one-day community recycling events to which you can bring your car seat (and usually other bulky items as well). Check with your local town office or recycling center to learn more.

Although not the greenest option when you consider the impact of shipping, you can mail your old car seat to BabyEarth. This Texas-based company operates a recycling program for baby gear and accepts car seats as well as high chairs, swings and strollers. The company disassembles the items and sends all parts to accredited recycling centers, including in developing countries, that can use the components for other projects.

Can I trash it?
If your area doesn’t recycle car seats or their components, it’s time for some demolition. It’s best to render the item unusable before putting it curbside with the trash. This ensures that no one else can use a potentially unsafe child seat. Options include sawing the plastic shell in half, using permanent marker to write “Unsafe” on the shell or taking a hammer to it.

Can I buy eco-friendly car seats?
Ideally, the recycling responsibility would lie with the manufacturer under something called extended producer responsibility (EPR), which requires manufacturers to be engaged in the entire lifecycle of a product, including disposal. EPR is firmly established on a national level in Europe, however, in the United States such waste-conscious product development policies are few.

In the meantime, you can make eco-conscious decisions when buying a child car seat. Some companies now manufacture 3-in-1 convertible car seats meant to fit a child from infancy through the booster-seat stage. Investing in one of these is a cost-friendly way to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills.

Other manufacturers such as Britax, Clek and Orbit are striving to make recyclable car seats. These three companies also are focused on removing harmful chemicals, such as PVC, lead and brominated flame-retardants, from their baby products. Supporting companies that have policies for eliminating toxins is a step in the right direction.

You can also make your consumer voice heard and ask car seat manufacturers to create recyclable seats or operate a car seat take-back program that includes recycling.

Rhode Island resident Donna DeForbes is founder of Eco-Mothering.com, a blog that explores ways to make going green fun and easy for the whole family. She is a contributor to Earth911, MammaBaby and author of the e-book “The Guilt-Free Guide to Greening Your Holidays.”