With approximately 10 million CRs sold in the U.S. each year, it stands to reason that this many will also expire or become otherwise unusable—and these typically make their way to our nation’s growing landfills. Two nonprofit organizations from Washington state, CoolMom and Zero Waste Washington, have jointly issued a 69-page report that examines the challenges and opportunities of a better approach: recycling unusable CRs. “Diverting Car Seats from the Waste Stream: An Investigation into the Reuse and Recycling of Children’s Car Seats” takes an in-depth look at the higher-level issues of this topic, like CR manufacturer involvement, emerging materials, funding models, and the various ways that CRs can be processed for recycling. In addition, a series of appendices includes impressive tables that list current collection programs across the country, sorted by type, ownership model, and state.
With respect to manufacturer involvement, it describes the general concept of cradle-to-cradle design, in which the environmental impact of a product throughout its entire lifecycle (production, use, end-of-life, and beyond) is considered during the product’s design process. For CRs, design improvements might include those that reduce material toxicity and ease recyclability (such as by limiting the number of types of plastic in any single CR and consistently labeling plastics with standard resin identification numbers). Manufacturers can also improve the situation by conducting research that would help determine CR lifespans that are both safe and as lengthy as possible so that fewer CRs are removed from use each year. However, the report concedes that the very nature of CRs make them more difficult to recycle, as they must be difficult to disassemble to do their job, and design considerations must put child safety first.
Although the report does have some segments that focus on the organizations’ local situation, it draws from research conducted nationwide and has much information that would be of interest to CPSTs in any state. It would be of particular use to groups, organizations, or municipalities contemplating the adoption of a CR recycling program or the improvement of an existing one.
The following excerpt from the report is an example of the type of general information that is included. All information is backed up by helpful citations that are included in the report’s extensive endnotes.
Excerpt from “Diverting Car Seats from the Waste Stream: An Investigation into the Reuse and Recycling of Children’s Car Seats.” (Minor abridgement for SRN approved by the report’s authors.)
Car seats contain the following components and materials:
Harness/straps—The harness and straps are frequently made of polyester webbing and are not widely recyclable. People who make bags or belts from reclaimed materials can sometimes reuse these.
Covers—These are generally a nylon/polyester blend that is treated with flame-retardant chemicals. May also contain: plastic or metal snaps, hooks and eyes, elastic, rigid plastic tabs, or Velcro. CR covers are not recyclable at this time and, because of the flame retardants, are poor candidates for creative reuse.
Sun shades—Rear-facing-only CRs often have a cloth and plastic sun shade. If separated, the fabric would be trash, but the plastic ribs may be recyclable.
Comfort foam—The comfort foam generally is treated with flame retardants and is not widely recyclable.
Buckles—The buckles contain both plastic and metal. These can be repurposed or ground to separate the metal from the plastic. The reclaimed metal is recyclable and the plastic may be.
Chest clip—Often made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic. Recyclability depends on the capabilities of local recyclers.
CR shell—May be comprised of up to three materials that are fastened together: hard foam, rigid plastic, and metal:
- Hard foam (styrofoam/polystyrene/EPS, EPE, EPP): A layer of hard foam lines most CRs. According to the American Chemistry Council, expanded polystyrene (EPS) is the most common variety used in CRs. Expanded polypropylene (EPP) and expandable polyethylene (EPE) are also used. Clean, hard foam can be recycled at some processing facilities.
- Plastic (various resin types): The most common plastic in CRs is impact copolymer polypropylene. Often a large portion of the shell is a single piece of polypropylene.
A number of the following plastic components may be affixed to CR shells: handles, skid strips, shoulder belt guides, knobs, recline levers, cup holders, head rests, arm rests, detachable bases, level indictors, and buttons. These components may be made of nylon, ABS, thermoplastic elastomers (TPE), or other plastic. Recyclability of these plastics depends on the capabilities of local recyclers, but most are more likely to recycle large, single-resin shells versus smaller parts and/or those made of multiple resins.
- Metal (steel, aluminum): Each CR contains a variety of metal reinforcement plates as well as screws, bolts, and/or rivets. Some CRs also contain steel reinforcement bars that are embedded in the shell and/or aluminum sidewalls. Although the bulk of the CR is plastic, typically the most valuable recyclable material is the metal.