Secondhand car seats and breast pumps: Eco-friendly tips for expecting parents.

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Jan. 18 2011 11:04 AM

Reproduce, Recycle, Reuse

Are secondhand car seats safe? And other eco-riddles for expecting parents.

My spouse and I are expecting a newborn soon, so we spent last weekend braving the aisles of a big-box baby supply store. I couldn't help but feel that buying all this new gear is unnecessary. Can't we just use our friends' and families' old baby stuff?

Baby in a car seat.
Just how safe is that secondhand car seat?

Congratulations on your little green blessing. The Lantern has hesitated to shine his light on procreation, since having a baby should be a deeply personal decision. But that hasn't prevented others from making family planning an eco-political controversy. Some number-crunchers, for instance, imply that having a child is tantamount to polar bear genocide. Take, for instance, a widely cited statistical analysis which estimated that increasing your car's efficiency by 10 miles per gallon, driving 75 fewer miles per week, replacing your drafty windows, switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, getting an Energy Star-approved refrigerator, and recycling all paper, plastic, and metal over the course of your lifetime would represent just 5 percent of the carbon emissions you would save by not having a child. I somehow doubt my beloved parents, Yellow and Blue Lantern, faced this kind of pressure on that blessed evening so many years ago.

But let's assume you've already decided to reproduce. The Lantern has already declared cloth diapers superior to disposables in environmental, if not practical, terms. If you've already vowed to swaddle your baby in reusables rather than plastic, hunting down preowned gear is the logical next step.

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If your friends and family are willing to hand down old bassinets, bibs, and burp cloths to you, by all means accept. If that doesn't do the trick, go online: Tons of Web sites, like Craigslist and Freecycle, offer used baby gear for swap or sale. If possible, choose hand-me-downs you can pick up in person rather than those requiring shipping—particularly if you can rely on public transportation. If public transit isn't an option, you might just want to have the baby gear shipped to your house, since getting you and your car to the point of sale (and back) often accounts for a large portion of a product's carbon footprint. According to one estimate, shipping two 5-pound packages by overnight air uses roughly 40 percent less gasoline than a 20-mile round-trip drive to the mall.

How much energy would you save by obtaining all your baby gear secondhand? It's extremely difficult to say. But, for the sake of argument, let's do a back-of-the-envelope calculation for the clothing. It takes 60,642 kilowatt-hours to produce a ton of cotton clothing. An infant onesie weighs in at about 2 ounces, meaning that each of those little stain-magnets requires about 3.78 kilowatt-hours. If your infant uses 30 of them in her first year of life, they represent as much energy use as would leaving a compact fluorescent light bulb running for a full year. That calculation covers just the onesies and doesn't include all the adorable little booties, "I Love Daddy" T-shirts, or $110 Baby Dior cashmere zip-ups.

Virgin cotton has other impacts. It takes 20,000 liters of water to make a single cotton T-shirt and pair of jeans, according to the United Nations. (They didn't run the numbers on baby onesies, unfortunately.) Traditional cotton production also requires tremendous amounts of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides.

There are a couple of items, however, that you should think twice about before using secondhand: breast pumps and car seats. Breast pumps, like hypodermic needles, shouldn't be shared. In commercial pumps, the milk can flow all over the internal machinery. There's really no way to clean that off, so it's possible that some very unpleasant viruses may hop on the next river of breast milk that flows through the machine and into your baby's mouth. (In contrast, rental pumps are designed so that milk touches only the removable parts.)

Secondhand car seats are also a little iffy. Just like bike helmets and other crash-protection devices, car seats cannot be reused after an accident. So, if you're buying a used model, you should be absolutely certain that it hasn't been involved in a crash. If you have the opportunity to pick up a hand-me-down from a trusted family member, check the expiration date. Ultraviolet light degrades plastic; anyone who owns a plastic flowerpot has seen how weak sun-exposed plastic can become. Although the car seat may have lived a happy, crash-free life, just sitting outside will eventually make the plastic brittle. Spilled milk, juice, and other fluids can also weaken the fabric in a seat's restraining straps—as can the cleaning products used to tidy up those spills.

The government rigorously tests car seats, but it doesn't require an expiration date or recommend procedures to test the longevity of the product. Still, most manufacturers put expiration dates of between five and nine years on their car seats. If a seat is recently expired, does that mean you're risking your baby's life? Plastic and fabric break down over time, not overnight, so the car seat doesn't go from safe to unsafe at the stroke of midnight on the expiration date. (A car seat loses about the same amount of strength between the fourth and fifth years as between the fifth and sixth.) Furthermore, some reasons manufacturers give for the expiration date—like the potential loss of the instruction manual or worn-out writing on the labels—are less than persuasive. The Lantern knows, however, that car seats are an extremely emotional issue for many parents. You'll have to decide for yourself whether the incremental loss of safety will keep you up at night.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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