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Q. Dear Umbra,

My car seats are going to expire in the spring. I know where to recycle the metal and fabric components, but what about the big chunk of plastic that is the car seat itself? I’ve heard of recycling events in other cities, but no one here in NYC seems to think they are recyclable. Could you please tell us if there is some national list of places that will recycle expired car seats?

Cristina
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Car seat.A. Dearest Cristina,

Your letter gets at a situation stickier than a 2-year-old with an ice cream cone: The law requires millions of people to buy an item that is made to “expire” in just a few years. Yet when that expiration date arrives, there is no easy way to recycle said item.

Eh, you might shrug. What’s the big deal? 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 [PDF], the most recent stat available. 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.

The most frustrating part is that 90 percent of these materials are recyclable, according to the kind folks I spoke with at Earth911. So the way I see it, millions of parents should rise up in protest. But let’s address the short-term issue first.

If you wish to recycle an expired car seat, there are a few routes to explore (by the way, if your old car seat has not expired and has not been in a crash, you can usually donate it):

  1. Contact your local recycling agency and see if they will take the car seat. When they say no (which they will), ask if they will take the pieces if you disassemble it yourself. Most car seats contain #5 plastic, which is tough to recycle in many places, but it can be made into useful things like outdoor furniture, plastic lumber, and culverts.
  2. Look around your region for car-seat recycling programs or events. The good news is, a lot of efforts have sprung up since we last visited this topic: You’re in luck if you live in or near Morristown, N.J. (Cristina!), Portland, Seattle, Austin, Boulder, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, or Calgary. If you people know of other programs, tell us in comments below.
  3. Explore the mail-in option. Yes, for the low, low price of shipping a car seat to Texas, you could … ship your car seat to Texas. This is perhaps not our best option, given the impacts involved.
  4. Band together with other local parents to ask that your town or county offer a car-seat recycling program, as the Morristown Moms and Tots did (here is the detailed letter they sent to local officials), or to start recycling the things yourself, like these enterprising women in Omaha. Here are some tips from one successful program on how to get started.
  5. Do something else with your seat. Contact your local police or fire department, hospital, parenting organization, or high school to see if they can use the seat for trainings. Keep it in your home for dolls, stuffed animals, and other playthings to use. Turn it into a planter!
 

Now on to the uprising: Parents, use your consumer power. Write to the car-seat manufacturers (hat tip to EnviroMom for compiling these) and major retailers. Tell them you want a car-seat take-back program with recycling (this is key, as items brought to the most widespread current option, the Babies”R”Us Great Trade-in, are tossed). Tell them you won’t buy their products until they make recycling part of the package.

Then join my Twitter revolution: Use the hashtag #takemyseat and tell me your ideas for turning this minivan around.

Lumbarly,
Umbra