If you care about the environment and sustainability, it’s time to include the greenwashing of carpet waste management as one of your concerns.
Greenwashing, of course, refers to a product, service or legislation that purports to have environmental benefits, but actually doesn’t. The general public is perhaps most familiar with the term as it applies to food. The color green and the slogan “good for the earth” may appear on food packaging. But that’s no guarantee the food in it is raised or shipped sustainably, or is even healthy for you. The companies that do this kind of packaging are engaging in greenwashing.
Greenwashing in the carpet waste industry is much less well known. It’s a huge environmental problem, however. Greenwashing occurs at the level of both industry statements and legislation, because laws designed to recycle and reuse carpet waste do not in fact promote environmentally sustainable practices. Read on for more information about carpet waste management and what should be done to combat greenwashing.
The scope of the problem
The amount of carpet manufactured in the U.S. is significant. The American carpet industry makes 45 percent of the carpet used worldwide, more than any other single country.
The U.S. carpet industry produced 11.7 billion square feet of carpet and rugs in 2014. That figure is expected to be 14.6 billion in 2019, an increase of 4.5 percent every year.
When new carpets are placed into U.S. homes, old carpets are torn up and discarded. It is often not, however, discarded in an environmentally sustainable way.
In fact, 89 percent of discarded carpet ends up in U.S. landfills. Carpets alone constitute more than 3.5 percent of all materials placed in U.S. landfills every year. It equates to 4 billion pounds of material.
Carpets placed in landfills pose significant environmental hazards. If the carpet is made from synthetic materials, it degrades in landfills slowly and takes up space. Degrading carpets can also contribute to methane emissions.
The environmental effects don’t end with land and air. Carpets in landfills can leach dangerous chemicals which can eventually end up in the water supply. The chemicals, used for stain resistance in carpets, include formaldehyde and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Some chemicals, like perchlorate, are used for treatments against static.
Six percent of discarded carpet is burned. Last year, 206 million pounds of carpet were burned in municipal incinerators and cement kilns.
Like landfilling, incinerating carpet has deleterious environmental effects. Burning waste carpet causes more greenhouses gases than coal. And many carpets contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC). If carpets made with PVC are incinerated, dioxin will result. Dioxin has been proven to cause cancer. Mercury and lead can also be released from incinerated carpet.
How carpet waste is greenwashed
Currently, just 5 percent of carpet waste is recycled.
Six years ago, California signed into law the country’s first carpet waste management legislation, AB 2398. The law was intended to make carpet manufacturers responsible for managing their waste. It was also planned to make the method of waste management recycling, rather than landfill or incineration.
However, the carpet industry fought AB 2398 from its inception. First, they shifted the method of payment from industry-sponsored to consumer-sponsored. When the bill was finally passed, consumers were charged the fees that underwrite a collection and waste management system that is run by carpet producers. The fee to consumers will be 25 cents per square yard beginning in 2017.
Because most of the financial burden was put on consumers, the bill represents a significant lost opportunity to incentivize carpet manufacturers to ensure recyclable products. This could be done via designing carpet to use more recyclable materials, or designing so that more recyclable materials would remain at lifecycle end, or simply promoting greater reuse.
Instead, what happened was greenwashing. A bill was passed purporting to better the management of carpet waste, but better management did not really occur.
Recycling of carpet waste has not improved since the bill was passed. In addition, the amount of carpet waste sent to incinerators has more than doubled.
California hoped to recycle 16 percent of its carpet waste by 2016. But the state never came close. For both 2014 and 2015, in fact, the recycling rate for carpet waste in the state dropped from 12 percent to 10 percent.
What should be done?
Since good management of carpet waste is important to both the earth’s resources and human health, the organization GAIA proposes several measures to make sure that the waste management promotes sustainability, not just gives the impression that something is being done.
It proposes stronger legislation in California to promote carpet waste sustainability, including amending the legislation so that manufacturers pay for eliminating carpet waste and recycling.
It also believes that manufacturers should be banned from incinerating their products as a method of waste disposal, and that landfill disposal should be limited.
Finally, GAIA proposes that carpet waste should have adequate and easy collection. If homeowners, property management companies, and manufacturers all join forces to fix this problem, greenwashing carpet waste can be stopped.
Greenwashing of all types diverts attention from how to best ensure sustainability and good stewardship of the earth. More knowledge of carpet waste greenwashing should result in improved recycling methods and better legislation.
by Anum Yoon