We walk on them daily, mostly without a second thought about how they are manufactured and whether they are recycled and if so, to what extent? We’re talking carpets here, be they in homes, offices and other buildings, cars, and other applications. How many of us are aware of the various materials that go into carpets and whether they contain elements of recycled products? In fact, the carpet industry uses plastic water bottles in the manufacturing process and cannot get enough of them.
According to the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), “Americans discard about 3.9 million tons of carpet and rugs each year.” That is a significant figure and as PSI notes, “Recycling carpet can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use; yet, despite voluntary industry recycling programs and one law in California, only about five percent of carpet is recycled. Carpet recycling can recover valuable materials to make decking, construction material, automotive and furniture parts, and carpet pad. Instead, the majority of this bulky waste ends up in landfills or waste-to-energy plants and imposes significant costs on local government.”
The problem is thus presented in a nutshell and it should concern all as huge amounts of carpet are simply discarded, helping to needlessly fill-up our existing landfills or generate greenhouse gases. Ongoing efforts to recycle them are positive, but it took a while to even reach the 5 percent level, which means that for decades several hundred million tons of carpets were not properly recycled.
Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) is expected to achieve a recycling rate increase to 24 percent by 2020 in California via an extended producer responsibility (EPR) law to establish an “economically and environmentally sustainable infrastructure for managing scrap carpet.” This is a good start and PSI recognizes that by creating the necessary infrastructure, more substantial goals can be achieved in the next two decades. But the math is worrisome—it means that millions of tons of carpets will still be entering disposal facilities. We can and must do better.
California, which is responsible for many innovative recycling programs that have been adopted by other states and have inspired variations, passed the nation’s first carpet EPR law in 2010, which, according to PSI, “put in place a manufacturer-designed and run incentive program operated by CARE. Under this law, CARE pays carpet recycling processors a subsidy for material they sell to be used in new products. The program is designed to make recycling economically viable but does not directly pay for collection, transportation and other recycling costs.
“CARE’s program initially increased the recycling rate to 14 percent—double the rate of voluntary programs,” states PSI. “However, CARE has not continuously and meaningfully improved the recycling rate as required by the law, which is missing many elements of a model EPR program advocated by government agencies around the country.”
In 2017, the law was amended to increase the effectiveness of the program. Changes included setting a 24 percent recycling goal (by 2020), requiring an increase in collection convenience and expanding the market for products made from post-consumer carpet, and creating a multi-stakeholder advisory committee. Since 2015, EPR laws for recycling carpet have been introduced in New York (2018), Maine (2017), and Illinois (2015).
What is the Delay?
The big question is why has only one state passed an EPR law? And secondly, knowing that discarded carpets are needlessly filling up our landfills, what is delaying every state from passing similar legislation within the next three years? Thirdly, what is preventing states in various regions from establishing organizations to oversee the recycling of carpets and setting up common institutions? Two guaranteed certainties would result in such actions—carpets would be recycled in an environmentally-friendly manner, along with other products such as asphalt roof shingles, and secondly, cities and counties would be fully aware of how important it is to maximize the lifespan of existing landfills and how many communities—large and small—object to the expansion of existing ones and the building of new ones.
A solution is desperately needed and fast! Storing discarded carpets until they can be recycled is expensive and should it be done, pose fire and environmental hazards. In December, a used tire dump just outside of Quebec City caught fire, and too often we hear about sites containing large amounts of paper catching fire. Unless swift measures are taken to create the industrial infrastructure to recycle carpets, carpets will continue to be buried and burned and cause unnecessary environmental impacts.
So, is it feasible to create the recycling infrastructure rapidly and markets for the products derived from them? Can a closed-loop system be established quickly whether by law or a recognized understanding? Are consumers willing to pay an upfront recycling fee to not only recycle carpets, but also fund development of a recycling infrastructure? Are domestic manufacturers doing their best to manufacture carpets that can be easily recycled and can the United States impose a recycling standard for manufacturers in other nations to adopt if they want to export their products to the U.S? This would not be a tariff as domestic manufacturers would also be bound by similar legislation; and as this is an environmental protection regulation, it does not target any particular nation. What it does is establish a precedent to promote environmental protection and enhance recycling as a common goal for all nations.
If the U.S. can target other countries to meet its environmental and recycling goals, American products can be treated similarly. What is key is that all nations pass laws and regulations that they will be obliged to follow and allow for best practices in recycling to be shared to have global uniformity. This could lead to serious research to maximize recycling processes and for international joint-ventures, be it research or business partnerships.
PSI notes, be it a federal or state law, that EPR systems would require the “producer” or “first importer” to be the responsible party. PSI also stresses that voluntary industry initiatives have failed to drive carpet recycling, noting that in 2002 “a consortium of manufacturers, recyclers, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreeing to achieve a 40 percent landfill diversion rate by 2012 and a 20 to 25 percent recycling rate, with the carpet industry providing the necessary funding to meet these goals.
“Unfortunately, in 2010,” it added, “CARE reported a national recycling rate of only 4.5 percent. The second round of MOU negotiations ended in 2011 with no agreement on future goals or a sustainable funding mechanism. Subsequently, in 2015 and 2016, CARE’s nationwide temporary Voluntary Product Stewardship Program provided funds to sorters to divert more carpet from disposal.”
This clearly demonstrates the need for state and regional leadership from governors. Carpets are just one of the products consumers need to be educated about to press all levels of government to enact serious legislation and regulations to enhance and promote recycling.
Product Stewardship Institute Initiatives
PSI is an excellent example of an organization that not only raises public awareness but also creates programs and engages in research to help various stakeholders develop and implement programs. Regarding carpets, it provides data and hosts informative webinars, including “Carpet and Mattress Stewardship in Rural Areas,” which explored opportunities to increase recycling and build capacity for stewardship programs.
In 2014, PSI also coordinated and facilitated a National Carpet Stewardship Dialogue Stakeholder Meeting that drew more than 100 state and local government officials from 15 states to explore key issues and identify possible solutions. “The meeting was attended by CARE,” said Scott Cassel, PSI founder and CEO, “but boycotted by the entire carpet industry (e.g., manufacturers) because regulation was one of several strategies on the agenda for discussion.”
Following the meeting, state and local government officials from around the country worked with PSI to develop the essential elements of a model EPR bill that was used by several states to introduce bills. In response to the meeting, the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) provided several million dollars per-year of recycling payments to a handful of recyclers as long as they pledged in writing “not to support EPR legislation.”
Over the past five years, PSI has worked with states to introduce carpet EPR bills and supports those efforts through research and technical support. PSI has also recommended improvements to CARE’s proposed California stewardship plan during public comment periods. “We’ve worked with state and local elected officials to introduce carpet producer responsibility legislation,” said Cassel, “and through national strategy calls, we’ve helped states build capacity for carpet stewardship legislation. Together with our members, we have developed a menu of legislative elements outlining EPR bill options for performance goals, convenience standards, reporting requirements, and outreach and education. In 2014, we worked with Illinois stakeholders to develop and introduce their carpet EPR bill, which sparked conversations with CARE to increase state recycling rates.”
Moreover, PSI has compiled data on carpet production, composition, disposal, recycling, and environmental impacts, which were presented in an early Action Plan in 2000 and Carpet Stewardship Briefing Document that was developed in 2014. “The briefing document provided an overview of scrap carpet management in the US and outlined the problem with carpet recycling,” said Cassel, “including little recycling, costs falling on government, and lack of awareness of where to recycle carpet; the need for more collection and processing infrastructure and other necessary infrastructure; goals to achieve increased recycling, sustainable financing system, and other benchmarks and measures); and solutions to achieve goals such as EPR laws.”
The organization also provides tools for governments, organizations, and others looking to start or promote carpet stewardship programs. This included the 2015 How-To Guide for Advancing Carpet Stewardship that provides guidance on best practice strategies for setting up effective carpet stewardship programs.
With all the information and data at our fingertips, as well as effective techniques to recycle carpets that have been developed, the key questions are crystal clear—what is stopping us from acting rapidly on carpets and what are we waiting for?
Irwin Rapoport is a freelance writer with extensive knowledge of the waste and recycling sectors. He can be reached at [email protected].
Photos Courtesy of the California Department of Resources, Recycling, and Recovery.