A report from GAIA reveals how old carpets go straight to landfill or get burned because many manufacturers haven't developed closed-loop production.
Have you ever stopped to think about where old carpets go after they’ve been ripped up during a home renovation? The vast majority (89 percent) are dumped in landfills, some are incinerated (6 percent), and less than 5 percent are reused or recycled. In fact, so many carpets are tossed into the ground that they represent 3.5 percent of American landfill waste, totaling 4 billion pounds per year.
This is a terrible situation, especially considering that synthetic carpets are made from oil, a non-renewable resource. In landfills, they biodegrade very slowly, leach dangerous chemicals into the ground, contribute to methane emissions, and take up a lot of space. When incinerated (a process that the carpet industry calls “transformation”), they release persistent organic pollutants, endocrine disruptors, and other hazardous chemicals like dioxin, mercury, and lead. Often these incinerators are located in low-income neighborhoods, which means that nearby disadvantaged residents are the ones who suffer higher cancer rates, heart attacks, strokes, pulmonary disease, and asthma.
According to a report published by anti-incineration group GAIA, titled “Swept Under the Carpet: Exposing the Greenwash of the U.S. Carpet Industry” (December 2016), the environmental stewardship group created by the state of California in 2010 to promote carpet recycling is a total farce. Representatives from the biggest carpet manufacturers sit on the board of directors, which could cast doubt on the group's incentives to improve recycling rates or invest in closed-loop production.
In fact, ever since California pressured manufacturers in 2010 to divert carpets from landfill, the incineration rate has doubled. In 2015, a shocking 206 million pounds of carpet were burned as a way of getting rid of them.
As the GAIA report points out, it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to design carpets for optimal recyclability:
“A carpet is fully recyclable when the fibers can be easily separated from the backing. Currently most carpets on the market are only partially recyclable, which means that only face-fibers or backing can be recycled. Often, the way the carpets are glued together prevents the harvesting of the full face-fiber for recycling, making it less economically viable to engage in the collection and recycling efforts. The same is true for mixed face-fibers. As soon as a carpet contains more than one face-fiber material type (e.g. nylon 6 and wool) the recyclability fails and the material can only be down-cycled.”
Switching over to carpet tiles, as opposed to broadloom carpet, drastically increases their potential for reusability. Carpet tiles are usually installed with a non-permanent bond, making them easier to remove, and because they’re not cut to specific dimensions, they can be used in other spaces.
GAIA’s revealing report has been picked up by The Story of Stuff, which has launched a petition asking Shaw to take responsibility for the full life cycle of its carpets. You can join the call asking for better design, creation of recycling facilities (of which Shaw has already shut down two), and that the company stop trying to undermine California’s recycling efforts.
GAIA wants the CARE program to be rejected and replaced by a new group that is neutrally governed, and the industry to be charged for disposal fees, as opposed to consumers. Incentives for recycling must be established because the current situation is unfair:
“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 Extended Producer Responsibility type programs in any jurisdiction.” (emphasis ours)
Staying away from carpet altogether is a good option. Consider other forms of flooring made from renewable resources, or look for natural-fiber carpets or rugs to warm your space, i.e. pure wool, jute, seagrass, coir, sisal, etc. (You won't have to contend with nasty synthetic off-gassing, either.) If you do go with carpet, ask tough questions about recyclability before purchasing, and join the call for companies to improve their standards; otherwise, your great-great-great-grandchildren will find themselves contending with the rotting remains of your unfashionable living room carpet in a century's time.