By Miriam Gordon
Just a few weeks before GAIA approached me to work on a carpet recycling project, I was shopping for new carpet for my home. As an environmentalist, I knew that I wanted carpet that didn’t have toxic chemical treatments and was made with recycled content.
I went to three stores in San Francisco. I thought that in a city with such environmentally conscious shoppers that this would be easy. But none of the salespeople I talked with knew anything about chemicals or recycled content. I saw two labels from the Carpet and Rug Institute- the Green Label and Green Label Plus – both with claims about protecting indoor air quality but I had no idea what these labels meant and the salespeople couldn’t enlighten me. There were no labels about recycled content or whether the carpet could be recycled. I started to wonder– how can consumers make responsible, environmentally conscious decisions about what carpets to buy?
It’s ironic that just about the time I gave up shopping for carpet, GAIA contacted me to help with a project aimed at making carpet more recyclable. They told me that California is the only jurisdiction in the world that requires carpet manufacturers to provide a recycling program for carpet discards. They wanted to work on reforming the program since it was failing miserably and a lot of carpet was being incinerated rather than recycled. Burning carpet can release toxic chemicals, like dioxins and furans, and fine particulates, and the testing and pollution controls aren’t adequate to protect people who live near these facilities.
In the first five years, CARE (the carpet industry’s recycling program) had only increased the California recycling rate by 3%, and reached 11% recycling in 2016, although the target was 16%. Meanwhile the industry had also ramped up carpet burning (e.g. incineration) also by 3%.
Victory for Carpet Recycling in California
In the last year, I am happy to report, we made huge headway in holding the carpet producers accountable for developing a meaningful carpet recycling program. Community groups, like East Yard Communities and Valley Improvement Projects, whose members live near municipal solid waste incinerators got engaged when we learned that in 2015 the amount of California carpet discards burned in waste-to-energy, cement kilns, and industrial facilities (30 million pounds) was roughly equal to the amount that was recycled (35 million pounds).
A couple of environmentally minded carpet companies, Interface and Tarkett, joined us in supporting legislation (AB 1158) to to reform the carpet recycling law. The bill was signed into law October 15th and requires carpet recycling rates to double and reach 24% by 2020. At the same time, the bill discourages incineration as a treatment option for carpet discards.
The Toxic Secret That’s Being Swept Under the Carpet
Unfortunately, increasing carpet recycling is dependent on solving the nasty secret of what goes into making carpets. Whereas I used to view carpet as something that made my house feel cozy and created a sound barrier from teenage boys pummeling each other upstairs, I now view them as toxic nightmare that should never have been in my home to begin with. They expose my family and the workers that produced them to a host of unwanted health threatening chemicals- altogether 44 carcinogenic, endocrine disrupting and other chemicals associated with carpet products are listed in this new report from Healthy Building Network (HBN).
I was shocked to learn that what is often counted as “recycled content” by the carpet industry are practices that help dirty industries find sinks for their waste. Fly ash from coal fired power plants is frequently used as filler in carpet backing. It contains toxic heavy metals like arsenic, mercury and lead and can comprise as much as 40 percent of the weight of some carpets. Abrasion can release these pollutants into our homes. When carpets discards are sent to incinerators, like cement kilns or waste-to-energy plants (6% of carpet waste is handled this way), these toxic heavy metals are once again released. Particularly in cement kilns, air emissions controls aren’t adequate to protect communities that surround them. But there’s some good news- in 2016, Shaw Industries, stopped using fly ash in backings and following the release of the HBN report, Home Depot just announced it will stop carrying carpet containing coal ash.
Other poisons lurk in carpet backing. Polyurethane backings contain isocyanates, which present a significant hazard through inhalation or skin contact — one drop of liquid isocyanate on a person’s skin can cause the onset of asthma. They also contain halogenated flame retardants, which are linked to hyperactivity, learning disabilities, reproductive harm, and cancer. The latex backing on broadloom carpets is frequently filled with Styrene butadiene, a carcinogen.
Carpet tiles prevent waste as you only need to replace one tile when there’s a stain, not the whole carpet. But the backing is typically a combination of equal parts polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and toxic plasticizers -phthalates- with higher amounts of filler (such as limestone or fly ash). Recycling PVC carpet backing recycles vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, and toxic plasticizers back into carpet products. Whereas burning of PVC in cement kilns and other forms of incineration is a significant source of dioxins, the most potent carcinogens known.
There’s a host of problems with how carpet fibers are treated. Stain repellent treatments on carpet fibers contain fluorinated chemicals that can cause developmental and reproductive harm, anti-microbial treatments contain carcinogenic formaldehyde and triclosan (an endocrine disrupter), and anti-static treatments contain perchlorate that disrupts thyroid function.
If you are overwhelmed by all these chemicals in carpet components, join the club! But what’s worse is that many of the chemicals are unnecessary and used for marketing the product. Stain resistant treatments are not necessary if carpet fibers are designed properly. Anti-bacterial and anti-microbial treatments actually provide no health benefit whatsoever. But consumers like the sound of products that fight bacteria.
Looking for the Magic Carpet: Can Consumers Avoid Toxic, Non-Recyclable Carpet?
Looking at the labels on the back of carpets, a consumer cannot know what chemicals lurk in the fibers, the backings, glues or foam pads, or how recyclable they are. Carpet certifications do not address most of the 44 chemicals listed in the recent HBN report. This is especially true for the industry-led GreenLabel Plus program, which relies upon a standard that tests for just one of those chemicals. In my view, regulators and the regulated industry are guilty of perpetrating toxic injury when they allow these chemicals to be present in products we live with. At the very least, I think most people would agree that consumers have the right to know what they might be exposed to when they buy a product.
The carpet industry should design carpet to be less toxic and more readily recyclable. Certification systems should actually test for the 44 toxic chemicals currently in use and not certify as safe products that contain them. The certifications should result in labeling that is clearly communicated to retailers and their consumers so that next time I go carpet shopping, a salesperson can actually help me find less toxic, more recyclable carpet. For now, GAIA is working to reduce toxicity, increase the recycling, and end the burning of carpet, so we can all shop and breath easier.
Miriam Gordon, a consultant to GAIA, is working to ensure that the carpet industry transitions its practices to promote a more circular economy. She has over 20 years experience in waste prevention-focused policy and program development and organizational leadership.