Getting Unsafe Car Seats Out of Circulation—Often Cutting the Straps Is Not Enough

This article originated in the July/August 2011 issue of Safe Ride News.

Experts agree that the key to the proper disposal of an unsafe CR is to make it unusable, but the definition of unusable and the method of destruction has been left to individual discretion. Owner’s manuals may say to destroy an unsafe CR, but don’t say how to do so.  The standardized CPS certification curriculum provides no detailed clarification on this subject.

Often technicians or parents merely cut the straps or remove the padding of an unsafe CR and consider it to be unusable once put into a dumpster or set out for curbside garbage pickup. Few people realize, however, that some individuals in the community may, nonetheless, be motivated to take what seems to them to be a serviceable plastic CR shell and reclaim it for their own use or financial gain. Manufacturers report that it is not uncommon for people to call their customer service departments for new straps and/or padding so these shells can be reused—or even resold in a second-hand store or online.   Some CRs have also been found at checkup events that have parts pieced together from multiple manufacturers or models. Even worse, in some cases, strapless or padless CRs are used “as is” or employed as make-shift boosters.

When to destroy a CR

A CR should be destroyed if:

  • It has been involved in a crash that requires replacement, as defined by the specific manufacturer for the specific model. Although NHTSA may offer guidance for circumstances in which a CR that has been in a crash definitely needs to be replaced, most manufacturers would advise replacing the CR regardless of the crash severity—and even regardless of whether it was occupied at the time of the crash. This information is often contained in the warnings section of manufacturer instructions, and many manufacturers repeat it on their websites or through their customer service departments.
  • It is beyond its expiration date, as defined by the manufacturer. While the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association generally recommends six years from the date of manufacture, each model has its own expiration date. The useful life varies from around six to as many as nine years, and further exceptions have been made for specific models. That information is typically found molded into the shell, on labels, or in the warnings of the instructions. When in doubt, contact the manufacturer.
  • It is recalled for crashworthiness reasons and the manufacturer says to destroy it. Most recall problems can be fixed by applying a repair kit and do not require the car seat to be destroyed.  However, some may require destruction and replacement of the CR.
  • It has damaged or missing parts that can’t be replaced. Manufacturer warnings usually state that damaged CRs should be replaced. If there are questions about whether the situation requires replacement parts, contact the manufacturer’s customer service department.

How to dispose of unsafe CRs

Check with the local recycler to find out what parts of a CR may be recycled in a given area.  Some parts may qualify for curbside recycling and can be cut off the CR and sorted into the appropriate collection canister, or other arrangements can be made with the recycler.

Any parts that cannot be recycled should be properly destroyed before disposal.  To make a CR unusable, the manufacturers SRN surveyed suggest the following steps:

  • Remove and cut the harness straps, crotch strap, and padding. (Scissors work, but a good belt cutter is better.)
  • Destroy the plastic shell by crushing or cutting it. (See next section.)
  • Recycle the harness, padding, and plastic shell parts through a local recycling facility, if possible.

If you are unable to destroy a CR shell entirely to prevent reuse, some suggestions include using a permanent marker to prominently declare the seat as unfit for reuse, marking out the model number so that new parts can’t be ordered, and using a dark garbage bag when placing it in the trash.

How to crush a plastic shell

One might rightly wonder, “How do I crush plastic that was made to withstand crash forces?”  The old-fashioned way, striking it with a tool like a sledgehammer, might work.  Anyone trying this approach should be comfortable with the effort required and take safety precautions, like wearing protective eyewear.

If you are not one to attack a CR (even an unsafe one) with a sledgehammer, a better option might be to seek out a place that has a crushing machine.  Many organizations, including major retailers (such as Target, Walmart) and some hospitals, have industrial-grade crushers at their facilities. CPSTs can develop relationships with these organizations to get permission to occasionally add unsafe CRs to their items being crushed, something they may be willing to do as a service to their community.  (Note, however, that if the CPST is not there to actually see the item being crushed, it is still a good idea, before dropping it off, to permanently mark the plastic with instructions that say the shell is unsafe and is there to be destroyed.  Also, obscuring the manufacture date and model number would make it impossible for someone to order replacement parts.)

This sounds like a lot of work, but developing a system for disposing of unsafe CRs is the best way to ensure that families do not unwittingly reuse them to restrain a child.

Joe Colella—Joe Colella