Why it’s so hard to keep old car seats out of the landfill

If you don’t want your expired child car seat to go to a landfill, a local retailer’s trade-in event is not your ticket to eco-friendly disposal.

While trade-ins are offered, recycling child car seats in Snohomish County is not easy.

“It’s long been an issue,” said Shawneri Guzman, who heads the Providence Regional Medical Center-sponsored Safe Kids Snohomish County program. “Some places will say, ‘Yeah, we’ll take them,’ and then they’ll get inundated and put the brakes on it.”

Toys R Us and Babies R Us stores through Saturday are holding a trade-in promotion. People are encouraged to drop off unwanted or expired child car seats, strollers and cribs to get a 25 percent off coupon for replacement gear at the store.

It’s a hassle-free way to get rid of a seat, but recycling is not in that seat’s future.

“They’re just taken off the market to make sure no one else uses them,” said Linda Connors, a spokesperson for Toys R Us’ parent company in New Jersey. “We consulted with product safety organizations, and they agreed that disposal of these items is necessary.”

Recycling the disparate parts of a child car seat, especially the hard plastic shell, is a labor-intensive and expensive process.

Guzman has been trying to find a recycler willing to take Snohomish County seats. “We’re trying to build a relationship and get some sort of understanding of where we can send people in the county,” she said.

For now, though, unless you’re willing to travel to Spokane or Portland or shell out big bucks to ship your seat to Texas, the garbage can remains the primary way to get rid of a child car seat.

Why do they expire?

Car seats are stamped with an expiration date, typically six to 10 years after manufacture. Safety experts say it’s no gimmick to get you to buy another seat.

“We use them every day, right?” said Guzman, who has taken extensive training to be a car seat technician for Safe Kids. “Think about it — if you wore the same pair of jeans every day, the buttons wear down, the material starts to wear away.”

Add temperature extremes a plastic seat experiences sitting in a car year after year, as well as the constant clicking and unclicking of latches and buckles to get a child in and out. “That just wears out over time,” she said.

The safety features of new models also mean the seat you get for your youngest could be vastly improved over the design you had for your oldest.

Guzman pointed to the LATCH and tether system now standard on most car seats as an example. “We saw less head and neck injuries.”

Similarly, repurposed car seats can be dangerous. A car seat might not be expired, but if it’s fitted with replacement straps or parts that weren’t made for that model, the seat might not fit properly in the car. It’s a situation Guzman has come across in Snohomish County in her work performing car seat installation checks. She notes that many manufacturers offer replacement parts for specific models, sometimes for free.

“Everyone wants to do what’s best for their child. We want to steer them to the safest answers,” she said.

Where to recycle

Safety concerns are part of the reason disassembling car seats and recycling them is so difficult.

Some seats are reinforced with steel. There are new models that even have electronic components.

There are options — if you’re willing to travel or pay.

Legacy Health in Portland is nationally known for its recycling program, which includes taking expired car seats that have been stripped and prepared to certain standards. The company is able to do it because of the scale at which it works. Legacy’s 8,500-square-foot recycling center takes in 2,000 tons of material a year, including electronics, Styrofoam, ink cartridges, solvents and more.

In 2014, the center recycled just over 6 tons of car seats through a recycling vendor, said Bill Clark, the program’s outgoing director.

“We’ve got a unique program. I get calls from all around the U.S. It’d be nice if other people did it,” Clark said.

The Portland program has become a resource for locals trying to kick-start similar programs here.

The Safe Kids Spokane program, operated by Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital, takes expired car seats at car seat checks and, when they have enough, ships them at no cost to Legacy’s recycling center.

Getting the same deal here is unlikely, according to Kimberly Christensen of CoolMom, a longtime advocate in King County for car seat recycling.

The Seattle area could likely produce in a month what Spokane produced in a year. “They don’t want to become inundated,” she said of the Portland program.

Farther afield, BabyEarth, an eco-friendly retailer in the Austin, Texas, area, will take expired car seats that are shipped to them. But that might not be practical for a single family. A rough estimate to ship a large car seat comes in at nearly $70 at the cheapest end.

Local efforts ‘a stop gap’

Christensen, of Seattle, has been working on the issue for six years.

“There’s already so much big stuff to think about in the world” for new parents, “the last thing we want to do is contribute to a bad future for them by trashing all this stuff,” Christensen said.

CoolMom produced recycleyourcarseat.org with Zero Waste Washington to connect people with resources and options.

For now, one-time recycling events remain the best bet — and those are few.

One store the group partnered with closed during the recession.

Then a nonprofit stopped taking expired seats when those seats started vastly outnumbering the reusable seats the group was primarily seeking.

A recycler stepped up for a one-day CoolMom event, but only as a pilot project.

Locations in Bellevue and Issaquah offer drop-off recycling, but only if you can prove residency.

It’s baby steps, Christensen said. CoolMom plans periodic car seat events in King County as it lines up recyclers willing to work with them. Christensen calls it a “stop-gap” while longer-term solutions are worked out.

“The one thing that I encourage people to do is always call their car seat manufacturer and ask them, ‘Do you offer recycling and, if not, why not?’ The more they hear from consumers, the more likely they are to consider it,” Christensen added.

So far, Clek is the only major manufacturer with a recycling program.

Britax, a major car seat manufacturer, is among those that appears to be starting to take notice.

“They’re working currently on some kind of recycling program,” but “it’s in the talks at this point,” said Kristen Johnson, who works for a public relations firm that represents the company.

What you can do now

Whether you toss your seat or recycle it, there are some specific steps you need to take to get it ready.

Strip it bare,” Guzman said.

Remove and cut padding and straps, remove hardware and dispose of it separately, and write “DESTROY” on the car seat shell with permanent marker. Some manufacturers also recommend blacking out serial numbers and manufacturing dates.

This helps dissuade scammers who steal parts to reassemble and illegally sell expired car seats on Craigslist.

Polystyrene foam might be recyclable by specialty companies, typically outside Snohomish County. Eco Foam Recyclers in Arlington appears to have closed.

Keep a lookout for metal recycling fundraisers common to our area, where all-metal buckles can be dropped off.

Clothes for a Cause fundraiser events will take the fabric covers, soft foam pads and straps from car seats. Everett High School’s fastpitch team and its Class of 2016 each have ongoing collections. Or contact Liz Gordon with Clothes for the Cause at 425-239-6478 or lizgordon@msn.com.

Small parts that mix plastic and metal and that cannot be taken apart and separated, such as buckles, must be trashed.

Buying another car seat? Look to the future. Consider simpler models that are easier to disassemble and recycle, or manufacturers that offer recycling solutions.

“Seats are expensive and it can be a hardship on your family budget,” Guzman said. “But whether they’re $40 or $400, they all meet the same federal safety standards.”

Have a question about transportation? Email Street Smarts columnist Melissa Slager at streetsmarts@heraldnet.com. Please include your first and last name and city of residence. Look for updates on our Street Smarts blog at www.heraldnet.com/streetsmarts.

Car seat resources

Car seat ideas

Some ideas for repurposing an expired car seat:

* Use the straps and padding to make handbags.

* Use the seat for pretend play — they make great spaceship captain chairs, especially tipped toward the ceiling (er, space).

Check out other ideas on our Pinterest board

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