What Should You Do With Old Car Seats?

Abandoned old car seat on the beach

Sami Sarkis / Getty Images

Car seats go from being lifesavers to dust accumulators in a few short years, creating a huge trash problem. What's a parent to do?

Old car seats are the bane of my parental existence. Every time I walk into the garage, I shudder at the sight of several expired, outgrown car seats heaped in the corner; but I can’t bring myself to put them out for curbside garbage pickup because then they’ll just go straight to landfill, and that feels wrong.

Car seats are an excellent example of a worthy product whose life cycle has not been fully assessed by manufacturers -- nor, for that matter, has a better option been demanded by consumers. On one hand, they save lives every single day, but on the other, they generate massive amounts of trash that are nearly impossible to recycle.

Grist described the severity of the problem back in 2011:

"The big deal is this: An average car seat contains about 15 pounds of plastic, metal, nylon, foam, and other materials. Americans bought 9.5 million seats in 2007. Car seats 'expire' in six years, primarily due to degrading plastic (or fears thereof). That means in 2013, we could have 142 million pounds of solid waste on our hands — from one year’s sales alone. People keep having babies, people keep buying car seats, ergo: big deal."

Fortunately, a few places across the United States and Canada are starting to accept old car seats for recycling, so it seems my decidedly non-minimalist approach to waiting it out may pay off. If you’ve got some old seats kicking around, here are some ideas for getting them out of your space without weighing on your environmental conscience.

1. Go to Target

In honor of Earth Month, all major Target locations across the U.S. will be accepting old car seats for recycling between April 17-30 this year. You can also get a 20 percent discount off the purchase of a new seat. Target is working with Terracycle to make this happen. Romper reports:

“Through the exchange, according to Target, the department store plans on keeping more than 700,000 pounds of car seat materials out of landfills. Together, Target and TerraCycle will make sure that the car seats are recycled or turned into new car seats — saving the planet and your bank account, one seat at a time.”

2. Look for other recycling depots

If you’ve missed the Target window, or don’t have a store nearby, check out this list of places (19 states and 3 provinces) that do accept car seats for recycling. Some require a nominal recycling fee (approx. $10) to help cover costs and/or require the seats to be partially disassembled.

3. Consider reusing

If your child has simply outgrown a car seat or booster and it’s still in perfect condition, see if you can pass on to a friend or donate it to a women’s shelter, clothing bank, a church sponsoring a refugee family, or other social resource center. All used car seats must meet the following three criteria: 1) Never been in an accident, 2) not expired, and 3) straps haven’t been cleaned with harsh chemicals.

A group called RecycleYourCarSeat.org includes a link to a form that donors can fill out and attach to an old car seat prior to donating. It answers all the questions that recipients might have.

4. Recycle as best you can

The last resort is to dismantle a car seat as thoroughly as possible. Consumer Reports advises the following steps:

1. Use scissors to cut off the fabric, foam padding, and harness straps from the seat.
2. Use a Phillips-head screwdriver to remove as much metal as possible. Some cannot be removed easily.
3. Remove the car seat cover and any padding underneath it.
4. Discard the fabric, foam padding, straps, and mixed metal/plastic pieces and small plastic pieces.
5. Mark the plastic as expired or unsafe.
6. Recycle the bulky plastic body and all metal pieces.

Then start writing protest letters to car seat manufacturers, as advised by EnviroMom in this post, last updated in 2011 but still highly relevant.