Swept under the carpet: exposing the greenwash of the U.S. carpet industry

Carpets make up ore than 4 billion pounds of waste in American landfills, 3.5% of all landfill waste in the entire country .

Landfilling or burning carpets is dangerous for health, as synthetic fibres such as nylon and polyester can take centuries to biodegrade and when incinerated release high levels of polluting emissions. These particles can be lethal, causing cancer, heart attacks, strokes, asthma, and pulmonary disease.

The fact is that the carpet industry is constantly failing to increase carpet recycling and invest in better product design that eliminates waste.

We’re calling on carpet companies to:

  • Invest in better design.
  • Take responsibility for the products that you put on the market.
  • Stop undermining California’s recycling scheme and efforts to enact similar programs in the U.S. and across the globe.

We’ve sent letters to some of the largest carpet companies, and have not heard back. Join us in keeping the pressure on by sharing on social media!

More Carpet than We Know What to Do With

  • The U.S. carpet industry produces 45% of the world’s carpet, significantly more carpet than any other country in the world (World Watch Institute)
  • In 2014 that amounted to 11.7 billion sq. ft. of carpet and rugs- a number that is growing by 4.5% annually (projected to be 14.6 billion by 2019 (Freedonia 2015).
  • The carpet industry is incredibly wasteful. Carpets account for over 3.5% of all the waste disposed of in U.S. landfills (4 billion lbs. per year)- (Greenwaste 2015)

The Case for the Circular Economy

  • The U.S. accounts for five percent of the world’s population yet it produces half of the world’s solid waste and consumes a quarter of its fossil fuel resources.
  • A shift is needed towards a more circular economy where, at the end of their useful life, products are not disposed of but recovered and restored into other valuable products, creating a closed-loop system. The current system of wasting means society is throwing away billions of dollars of valuable products, while polluting the environment.
  • Recycling 1000 square feet of carpet and pad diverts 500 lbs. of carpet and padding out of landfills; eliminates 48 gals. of petroleum oil; and prevents 913 lbs. of CO2 from being emitted into our air (the equivalent of 950 miles driven by a car)

The Current State of Carpet Waste Management

  • In the U.S. today, an astounding 89% of discarded carpet goes to landfill, while 6% is incinerated, and less than 5% is recycled (CARE 2015).
  • Only 20% of the 5% recycled is recycled into carpet (i.e. closed loop), the remaining 80% is down-cycled into other less valuable products (CARE CCSP, 2015). That means that only 1% of carpet waste in the U.S. is recycled into carpet.
  • Only nylon 6, nylon 6.6 and polyester (PET) face fibers and backing can be recycled (technically). In terms of closed loop recycling, it is only economically feasible to recycle nylon 6 face-fiber back into face fiber. Nylon 6.6, PET and other materials are often down-cycled to carpet backing, adding, or into other products such as artificial surfaces, low grade engineering plastics such as washing machine parts and wheel trims, and plant pots or buckets.
  • Instead of redesigning carpets to make them easily recyclable, the carpet industry often avoids these necessary changes by pushing used carpets into incinerators and cement kilns. Currently, about 6% of U.S. carpet is incinerated in conventional municipal solid waste incinerators and cement kilns. In 2015, an astonishing 206 million pounds of carpet was incinerated (CARE, 2015).

Landfilling and Incineration Pose Significant Environmental and Public Health Threats

  • Synthetic carpets biodegrade very slowly in landfills, contribute to methane emissions, take up space. They can leach dangerous chemicals into the water supply, including formaldehyde and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) used for stain resistant treatments, and perchlorate used for anti-static treatments (Pharos Project).
  • Burning waste releases persistent organic pollutants, endocrine disruptors, and other hazardous chemicals such as dioxin, mercury, and lead. Many carpets also contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which creates dioxin when burnt. Dioxin is among the most dangerous chemicals known and a proven carcinogen (WHO, 2016). Dioxin is released into the air from incinerators and cement kilns, and is concentrated in the toxic fly ash that is landfilled after incineration. Even the most modern and expensive pollution control devices cannot prevent the escape of many hazardous emissions such as ultra-fine particles of PCBs, dioxin and furans and nanoparticles, which are not regulated by the US EPA (Howard, 2009). These particles can be lethal, causing cancer, heart attacks, strokes, asthma, and pulmonary disease. The health impacts of this pollution are felt first and worst in the places which border these facilities, in the U.S. largely low-income communities and communities of color.
  • Burning waste releases high levels of greenhouses gases — per unit of energy produced, the carbon emissions are even higher than burning coal (Energy Justice, 2014).
  • For most materials, recycling has been proven to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserve significantly more energy than incineration and can produce creates 10-20 times as many jobs as incineration (Tellus Institute, 2011).
  • In the case of cement kilns that burn waste in the U.S., the emissions may be worse as they are not subject to the same monitoring and regulations as traditional incinerators, Earthjustice has found that there is now no requirement of public notice to burn waste at more than 1.5 million boilers and other facilities nationwide, and ninety-nine percent of industrial power plants are not subject to any emissions testing (Earthjustice, 2014).

Failure of California Program to Increase Recycling and Achieve Circular Economy Goals

  • In 2010, California passed the first law (AB 2398, J. Perez) in the world to place responsibility for carpet waste management on the producers. It charges consumers a fee (25 cents per square yard starting in 2017) which funds a producer-run collection and waste management system.
  • The main purpose of AB 2398 was to ensure carpet waste is diverted from landfill, with a preference for reuse and recycling over incineration as alternative means of disposal.
  • In California, the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) stewardship program has resulted in more than doubling the waste sent to incinerators, with almost no increase in recycling.
  • The industry set a goal of a 16% recycling rate for carpet in California by 2016 however it has never met that goal and in 2014 and 2015, the recycling rate fell in California from 12% to 10%.
  • In 2014-2015, the industry reported decreases in collection, recycled output, the overall recycling rate, and the diversion rate. Meanwhile, disposal to landfill increased (CARE 2015).

Greenwashing and Undue Influence of Major Producers

  • CARE is firmly under the thumb of the biggest players in the carpet industry. The two biggest manufacturers, Shaw and Mohawk, and the industry trade association, Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) all have seats on the organization’s board of directors. There is no attempt to disguise the obvious conflict of interest. CARE is located in the same building as CRI in the heart of the U.S. carpet industry in Dalton, Georgia.
  • CARE and CRI actively lobbied against making carpet producers financially responsible for carpet waste management under AB 2398 and ensured that consumers pay upfront fees that funds the program- this amounted to $10 million in 2015 that CARE used to implement the program (Floor Daily)
  • CARE and CRI actively lobby against any other state passing a similar recycling mandate. Recyclers who participate in the CARE voluntary stewardship program, getting paid a mere $0.02 per pound of recovered carpet, must sign an agreement that they will not support producer responsibility type programs in any jurisdiction. To date, the industry has managed to kill legislation in Connecticut, Minnesota, Illinois and Washington State (Floor Daily, Maplight).
  • All the major manufacturers in the carpet industry make big sustainability claims (Mohawk, Shaw). The reality is that the industry is failing to recycle carpet into carpet, mostly they send waste to landfill (89%), incinerate (6%), and down-cycle carpet into other things (4%).