Strange how car seats go from one of the most important safety items you can buy for your precious cargo to completely useless lumps of plastic in almost no time at all. Because kids grow fast. First, they’re too big for their infant car seats; then, they’ve outgrown their toddler seats and boosters, too. This presents a recurring dilemma: What do parents do with their old car seats when they’re done with them — especially if they’ve reached that all-important, not-to-be-ignored expiration date?
For many parents, the answer ends up being something like, “let that chunk of plastic sit in the corner of your garage collecting dust until you figure out what to do with it.” Then, eventually, you cave and toss it, and it sits in a landfill with countless other car seats. And sure, throwing it away seems the easiest option, but it’s certainly not the most earth-friendly — and luckily, there are better options for what to do with old car seats: recycling and trade-in programs.
But before we get into that, let’s talk about what you shouldn’t do with a car seat: donate or sell it if the car seat is expired, has been recalled, or has been in an accident. The plastic that protected your child so well won’t do so anymore if it’s been broken, cracked, or degraded by the elements. The last thing you want to do is risk another child’s life.
That said, here are a few things you can do to end that expired car seat’s life nicely.
Target car seat trade-in event
In honor of Baby Safety Month this September, Target’s semi-annual Car Seat Trade-in program is back — and shelves are stocked with new brands to discover and love. From Sunday, Sept. 11 to Saturday, Sept. 24, you can head to a participating Target store (which is most of them) to trade in your old car seats and receive a coupon for 20 percent off a new car seat, stroller, or select baby gear. To use the coupon, you’ll need to enroll in the free Target Circle rewards program (you can sign up there or just go here to create an account).
According to the retailer, the old seats will be recycled and turned into items like plastic buckets, pallets, and carpet padding. The program has reportedly done this with 1,100,000 car seats, or more than 17 million pounds of plastic, since it began in 2016.
So, keep your eyes peeled for trade-in events like this one.
Other trade-in programs
Walmart has offered a similar deal in years past, but they haven’t announced one in a while. We’ll report it here when they do.
Car seat maker Clek will recycle your seat (of any brand, not necessarily theirs) in a slightly convoluted way. You’ll have to buy a shipping label from the site for $35.99-$49.99, which comes with a custom shipping and recycling bag to send the car seat back to them. Then you’ll get a credit for either a $10 off or 10 percent off coupon to use toward a purchase on the Clek site.
Earlier, we discussed not selling or donating a car seat if it has been in an accident, is expired, or was recalled. However, you can reuse or pass along the seat if it’s still in good condition and doesn’t fall into any of those aforementioned categories. To find out if your car seat qualifies for reuse, answer the questions on Consumer Reports’ website.
According to Recycle Your Car Seat, curbside recycling programs do not typically accept children’s car seats, even if you take them apart first.
Currently, 12 states have recycling options for car seats; you can find a list of programs on RYCS’s website. If a program doesn’t exist near you, you can still recycle as much of the seat as you can yourself. But before you begin dismantling, ask your local department of public works if the plastic from the seat is accepted in the local recycling program. If it is, then get to it!
Consumer Reports compiled the following list of tips from the recycling program in Ann Arbor, Michigan:
- First, use scissors to cut off the fabric, foam padding, and harness straps from the seat.
- Use a Phillips-head screwdriver to remove as much metal as possible.
- Remove the car seat cover and any padding underneath it.
- Discard the fabric, foam padding, straps, and mixed metal-plastic pieces and small plastic pieces.
- Mark the plastic as expired or unsafe.
- Recycle the bulky plastic body and all-metal pieces.
Have someone else do the recycling for you
There’s one more option for the truly dedicated environmentalists out there: You can pay Terracycle to recycle your car seat and other baby gear. Buy a box from the site, with prices ranging from $116 for an 11″x11″x20″ box to $217 for a 15″x15″x37″ box, stuff your used baby gear inside, and ship it off. This is not an inexpensive solution, but we are at the whims of manufacturers and recycling plants. You may instead just want to hold onto that seat until the next free car-seat trade-in program next year.
A version of this story was originally published in September 2019.
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You can also reduce waste by buying toys made from recycled materials, like those made by some of these great toy brands.