Can you recycle car seats? Why that's a tough question to answer

Can you recycle car seats? Why that's a tough question to answer

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Can you recycle car seats? Sometimes.

It should be easy. It's not. In some cases and some places, parents have no choice but to chuck this (formerly) precious object, this expensive and carefully chosen possession, the item that stood between their child and certain vehicular death, right in the trash. And feel just awful about it.

But it shouldn't have to come to that. Parents willing to do a little bit of investigation and work – or to pay someone else do that work for them – can find a better resting place for their car seat than the bottom of a landfill.

Why does it happen?

Car seats are the one piece of baby gear parents are required by law to use, and Americans buy 10 to 12 million of them a year. The vast majority of them end up in the trash. Why? They're a huge pain to recycle.

Some of the hundreds of car seats collected by Old Car Seat, New Life; image courtesy Kimberly Christensen.

"Car seats are made up of different parts and materials," explains Colter Leys, Director, Product Development at Orbit Baby. "These materials all have different recycling stories. Some things like the polypropylene used in the car seat shell and various metal parts and fasteners are readily recyclable, while some of the nylon parts used on the lock-off clamps and fabrics used in the upholsteries have a more complicated path to get back into the use stream."

Not only is the car seat made up of a grab-bag of materials – fabric, padding, hard plastic, flexible plastic, steel – many of these materials are not exactly hot items on the recycling market.

"We generate a lot of plastic and there's no market demand for recycled plastic," says car seat recycling expert Kimberly Christensen, who works with the Old Car Seat, New Life program in Washington State as well as, one of the few sites online with hard information on car seat recycling. Ever googled "how to recycle car seat?" It's one of the first returns.

Plastics make up about 85 percent of a car seat's weight, Christensen and colleagues estimated in their April 2015 report on car seat recycling, Diverting Car Seats from the Waste Stream. The rest is fabric, straps, and soft foam (10 percent) and metal (5 percent).

The fabric parts of the seat are, to put it bluntly, garbage. There's no market for it, and recyclers toss it in the trash.

The plastic in one 15-pound car seat is worth about $1 to $1.50. The metals are worth more, depending on what type you have and how much of it – but hang on, there's a catch. If you want to recycle the components separately, someone has to get them apart. Who?

So what are my options?

If you happen to live in the right place, recycling is easy. Some cities have car seat recycling programs run by hospitals, police departments or other agencies. You bring 'em in, drop 'em off, done. Whew. That was easy!

If you live in a city with no recycling program, your options narrow. BabyEarth RENEW is the first nationwide free recycling program for baby gear. Customers who live near Austin, Texas (BabyEarth's HQ) can drop gear off at the store; those who live elsewhere can mail it in. "It'll cost you $50 in shipping to send a car seat," Christensen estimates, "but then you're done!"

BabyEarth President & CEO Steve Steinberg says the company fills up an 18-wheeler with recyclable gear about once a month, which goes to a local recycler with employees trained in dismantling seats. Car seats make up most of the haul.

"People give their strollers to friends. We get car seats the most, because no one knows what to do with them," he says.

Many parents take used gear to Babies"R"Us and Toys"R"Us for their Great Trade-In events, believing/hoping that it would be recycled there. Alas, a source for Babies"R"Us and Toys"R"Us confirms that gear is merely disposed of safely, not recycled, which prevents consumers from using expired products but does nothing to keep them out of the landfill.

If you own a Clek seat, you're golden – Clek is the only car seat maker in the U.S. market that accepts its own seats back for recycling. Clek charges $40 to take back its seats (customers also get $40 off the purchase of their next Clek seat).

But if none of these options suit you, you're not entirely out of luck. If you live in a community that offers recycling for "mixed bulky rigid plastics" (you'll have to confirm this with local recyclers; we'll explain more about this in our next post), you may be able to dismantle your seat yourself and recycle the separated materials.

We'll show you how to do it in our next post, How to recycle your car seat: Grab your screwdriver, get to work.

But that's easier said than done. Here's why.

Take it apart myself? Really?

Car seats are made to keep your kid safe, not to be easy to recycle. Taking it apart is time-consuming.

Most car seats end up in a dump or a landfill; image courtesy Thinkstock

Clek estimates it takes its technicians 45 minutes to take apart each car seat accepted back for recycling. Christensen, who's taken apart an estimated 150 car seats in her living room "to try and get an understanding of what I'm dealing with," she says. Most seats come apart more quickly than that, but it's still a lengthy, frustrating and often fruitless endeavor.

Particularly since more manufacturers are putting seats together in ways that make them more difficult to pull apart: using rivets (impossible to get out with home tools) instead of screws (you have a screwdriver, right?).

"Rivets are cheaper than screws, so it makes sense if you're not even thinking about getting the seat apart at the end of its life," says Christensen. "But if the car seat company was paying for it to be recycled, they might use screws instead, because the 50 cents you might save is much less than what you'll pay in labor to get the rivets out."

"The number 1 priority of car seat companies is making car seats that are safe, meet all the requirements, and parents want to buy," she says. "Manufacturers are designing things that are going be sexy to consumers but not thinking about the disposal piece because we don’t require them to think about the end life."

"Because car seats are safety objects, we have to think a bit more about making things too easy to take apart as this may compromise the product’s safety purpose," says Orbit Baby's Leys. Orbit Baby investigated doing a take-back program like Clek's, but found that the shipping costs and carbon footprint of getting the seats back for recycling outweighed the positives.

Instead, when making design updates for Orbit Baby's G3 car seats, the company elected to make recycling easier on the consumer end: screws instead of rivets, upholsteries that can be removed without tools, and an emphasis on easily recycled raw materials. A recycling guide that instructed owners what to recycle and how to get it apart would be "a good next step," says Leys.

Orbit Baby's G3 Infant Car Seat is easier to recycle than most seats due to design changes.

Cynical budget-minded parents are now thinking that's all fine and good. But the Clek Foonf is $400; the Orbit Baby G3 $440. What about parents who can't spend that kind of money on a car seat? Are they just out of luck?

Clek and Orbit Baby are indeed on the leading edge car seat-recyclingwise. But some budget seat makers are making efforts. Evenflo has an in-house recycling program for the plastic left over from its manufacturing processes, as well as plastic in the thousands of car seats the company uses in safety testing.

Dorel Juvenile Group, the umbrella company for brands Safety 1st, Cosco, Maxi-Cosi, and Quinny, has a similar program. Over 99 percent of the plastic waste from its Columbus, Indiana car seat plant is recycled; the remaining 1 percent is sold to an outside recycler.

Good! But still, a drop in the bucket.

Will it ever get better?

Probably, but only if we make it happen. Christensen sees any number of workable future scenarios for car seat recycling – cities could contract with recycling depots to allow car seat drop-off, baby retailers could collect seats, Euro-style extended producer responsibility laws could be passed that compel car seat makers to take back and recycle their products, manufacturers could voluntarily launch take-back programs – but all of it is going to require consumer demand.

"Consumers have power," says Christensen. "Anybody interested in recycling car seat can take the extra 5 minutes to phone a manufacturer and say 'I want to recycle my car seat. What are my options? Why is this so hard?'"

More of the hundreds of car seats collected by Old Car Seat, New Life; image courtesy Kimberly Christensen.

Christensen estimates manufacturer take-back programs might add as little as $5 to the cost of the seat.

At least one industry source doesn't buy that number. Eric Dahle is Director of Engineering at Evenflo, which has an in-house recycling program for the plastic in the thousands of car seats the company uses for safety testing. He thinks that estimate is low given "the distances to ship the seats and efforts to reclaim the materials, and the inherent material value that can be extracted. There would need to be a significant infrastructure developed to drive those costs down."

For his part, Orbit Baby's Leys think the $5 estimate could work. He envisions a scenario where consumers could take seats back to the stores where they bought them and manufacturers pay local recyclers to get the job done.

"We do hear about [recycling] from some of our customers but I wish we heard it from more," says Leys. "This would make justifying changes to a more environmentally-friendly/recyclable solutions easier. Products are always a balancing act between function, features, safety, usability, ergonomics, looks, price. Having customer feedback helps us decide what to emphasize in future development work."

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Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.

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