This weekend I took a recycling risk, and it paid off with 57 car seats that did NOT end up in the landfill.
This all came about because last year, at our massive, hugely fun and exhausting Rotary Auction (see Action 70), one of the things we ended up with is a lot of old car seats, and nothing to do with them. Car seats are undoubtedly a life-saving invention, but they are something of a nightmare to deal with at the end of their useful life. Something that was extremely important to your chid’s safety becomes, once they outgrow it, not much more than several pounds of plastic that, short of giving to a good friend or family member who knows the car seat’s history, you can’t do much with, other than send it to the landfill. Most disposal services won’t recycle them, because they need to be disassembled first into their component parts, and even then, the plastic is not necessarily of a type that is easily recyclable. And with general agreement that seats older than 10 years old should not be used, and a recommendation of replacing a carseat at 5 to 8 years of age due to outdated safety features and/or materials breakdown, they don’t frankly have that long a life before they become a big chunk of hard-to-dispose-of petroleum products.
Fortunately, we do have a local organization that has found a way to recycle and up cycle car seats. WestSide Baby is a Seattle-based organization that accepts used car seats. Seats less than 5 years old in good condition are taken through a complete safety check, and then are redistributed to social service agencies to provide to low-income families. Older car seats are manually disassembled and recycled by their partners Total Reclaim. By collecting a recycling fee of about $6, WestSide offsets some of their costs for this program.
When faced with a glut of carseats last year, our Green Team manager at the Rotary Auction last year managed to connect with WestSide baby to take these car seats. This year, we decided to make a pre-emptive strike on car seats, and ask the community to bring the seats to a separate recycling event. Our Zero Waste group hosted the event at a local church parking lot, got a truck and driver generously donated by a local business, and posted to all kinds of social media and around town, and then- waited with baited breath. Would people show up? Would they get the news that Rotary wasn’t accepting car seats, but we would at this event?
The answer was yes!! In 3 hours, we collected 57 car seats, along with the recycling fee for most of them, and got them over to WestSide Baby. This is a win for the families in our community that do not have to send these car seats to the landfill, and it is a win for the families that will be able to receive and reuse some of the newer car seats we collected. Using some rough estimates of typical car seat weights, I estimate recycling/upcycling these car seats diverted somewhere around 650 to 700 lbs of plastic from the landfill.
But this is a TINY drop in the bucket: there may be as many as 12 million car seats sold each year in this country, and there are only a handful of programs across the country that actually recycle car seats. At an average weight of, let’s throw 10 lbs a car seat out there- they range anywhere from 5 lbs for a small booster to upwards of 25 lbs for a full-size convertible seat-that’s 120 million pounds of mostly petroleum products we are annually contributing to the market and, 5 to 10 years down the road, the landfill. That is APPALLING. How do we change this? I don’t have the large-scale answer, but I do know it would help to support and grow programs like WestSide Baby’s, and work on finding markets and partners for these materials. Certainly we should be thinking about what the responsibility perhaps should be of car seat manufacturers to responsibly dispose of these products, much as we are starting to do with electronics manufacturers. But in the meantime, Im starting with my mantra, that my tiny drop in the ocean contributes to the tidal wave of change we need to see on the way we produce and manage our energy and materials to combat climate change.