Man buckling little boy into his car seat

Kids grow so fast. No sooner have parents painstakingly researched and safely installed their infant’s car seat, than it’s time to do it all over again for the next size up. Most children will use three different types of car seats before they outgrow car seats altogether.

That adds up to a lot of car seats. Over 12 million car seats get disposed of each year in the U.S. But rather than ending up in the landfills, or worse, being incinerated, can car seats be recycled? Let’s look at the challenges and opportunities for reducing this waste stream.

When To Dispose of Car Seats

There are several reasons that people need to dispose of car seats.

  • The car seat has been recalled for safety reasons.
  • Children have outgrown their car seats.
  • The car seat has expired.
  • The car seat has been in an accident.

If the car seat is no longer safe, such as one that is expired or has been in an accident, recycling it is the best choice.

Obstacles to Recycling Car Seats

The greatest obstacle to recycling car seats is the lack of reliable information. Parents just don’t know where to go to recycle their unwanted, but still usable, car seats.

Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, notes there are other challenges as well. Most notable is the fact that plastics recycling in the U.S. became exponentially harder in 2018. That year, China banned the import of nearly all plastics to their country for recycling. Where once there was a strong market for the raw materials of recyclable plastic, now there were few options.

In 2015, Zero Waste Washington launched a program called Old Car Seat, New Life. The program set out to increase the rate of car seat recycling, in part by making it easier for parents to find accurate information. They compiled a list of options for parents looking to recycle their children’s car seats. Unfortunately, since China’s ban on imported plastic recyclables, nothing is a guarantee. Their website recommends calling ahead to any of their listed agencies, as availability changes. Washington state itself has only one company that offers periodic recycling events for paying customers.

Trim points to some lesser-known challenges to keeping car seats out of landfills. One is that there is no reliable way for an untrained person to determine whether a car seat has been in an accident. Without that information, car seats that could be reused or donated end up getting tossed. Another difficulty is that the fabrics in car seats are often treated with flame retardants, posing health risks to workers involved in the recycling process. (There is an effort to remove flame retardants due to the health risks posed to children.)

Where to Donate Used Car Seats

If a car seat hasn’t been recalled, expired, or been in an accident — and is still in good shape, donating it to someone who can use it is the best choice. Unfortunately, as mentioned, not everyone is qualified to inspect child car seats for safety. That’s why many charitable organizations won’t accept car seats. The website has a list of organizations in all 50 states that accept used, non-expired car seats for donation. The listed organizations include children’s hospitals, shelters for families in crisis, and agencies supporting foster families.

Car Seat Recycling Options

There are options for recycling children’s car seats. Not all of them are convenient, or free, but we’ll try to simplify some of your options here.

Start with your local trash hauler or municipal offices

Most trash haulers offer recycling services as part of their services. It’s a long shot, but give them a call and ask if they accept car seats. They may host sporadic recycling events or be able to point you in the right direction. Your local board of health or department of public works may know of places for you to bring car seats for recycling. There is usually a fee for these options.

Retail store recycling events

Some retailers host car seat recycling events that are good for the planet, good for parents, and good for their businesses. The drop-off is free to parents, and the store may provide a rebate for a future purchase. The retailers benefit from increased foot traffic.

Target held a two-week car seat recycling event in April 2021. Customers (with a Target Circle account) who brought a car seat to recycle received 20% off select baby items. Since 2016, Target has collected a total of over a million car seats for recycling at their events. It’s likely they will continue their event in 2022.

Walmart partnered with TerraCycle to launch their first Walmart Car Seat Recycling Event in September 2019. They had to close the event early after receiving over 1 million car seats in less than a week. Parents who brought a car seat for recycling received a $30 gift card to spend in-store. Walmart has not held a second event, most likely due to COVD-19 precautions.

Mail-in programs

If you have a car seat made by Clek Inc., they offer a mail-in program in partnership with CarSeatRecycling, which also recycles any brand car seat for between $35.99 and $49.99. CarSeatRecycling also offers $10 or 10% off of a future purchase of a Clek product. If you’re going to buy one of their car seats anyway, that discount can offset the recycling fee. CarSeatRecycling, which has recycled more than a half-million car seats, also offers bulk recycling to retailers and for local events.

Another mail-in option, if you have a Century brand car seat, is TerraCycle’s Century Baby Gear Recycling Program. Although this program is free of charge, only Century brand car seats are eligible.

Parents Want to Recycle Children’s Products

It’s clear from the turnout at retail recycling events that parents are highly motivated to see their car seats recycled instead of going to waste in a landfill. After all, we buy car seats to protect our kids. We want to protect the earth for their future, too.

By Mary McDonald

Mary McDonald is a freelance writer based in Central Massachusetts. After working as a teacher for many years, she now writes about mental health, wellness, and the environment. You can find her on LinkedIn.