California Law Closes Carpet Recycling Loophole, But Problems Remain
November 6, 2017
The Healthy Building Network (HBN) contends in a new report that most of today’s carpet is not only difficult to recycle but also too toxic to keep around. HBN released the report just days after California approved new legislation that encourages a significant jump in carpet recycling rates.
The law requires manufacturers, by 2020, to take back and recycle 24% of carpet. It also closes a loophole in an earlier law that allowed incineration to count as landfill diversion. Good, right?
Not so fast, says HBN. In the report, Eliminating Toxics in Carpet: Lessons for the Future of Recycling, the advocacy group offers alternatives for the industry to consider.
Carpet is a complex product whose basic components are contaminated with adhesives, plasticizers, and other substances that make it hard to recycle. Some chemicals do not hinder recycling, but they can pose other problems. For example, the report says, surface treatments like fluorinated stain repellants don’t make it difficult to melt down and reuse parts of the carpet. But exposure to these hazardous chemicals can occur during recycling (for workers in recycling factories) and after (for building occupants where the recycled-content carpet is installed).
In order to start treating waste carpet responsibly, according to the report authors, the industry needs to redesign both the recycling process and the manufacture of new carpet. The report identifies 44 toxic compounds that HBN believes should be permanently removed from carpet products. These include backing materials, antimicrobials, fillers, stain repellants, flame retardants, and more.
The carpet industry “was one of the first to address emerging concerns” about toxic chemicals in building products, said Tom Lent, policy director at HBN, in a webinar announcing the report’s release. These were primarily VOCs commonly used in carpet manufacture through the 1990s and 2000s. But “that’s just one pathway of exposure of many that can impact human health,” Lent continued. He pointed out that leading manufacturers are already moving away from other chemicals of concern, such as stain-resistance treatments, fly ash, and toxic plasticizers—proving that it’s possible.
In addition to changes in the design of new carpet, the report encourages increased ingredient transparency, better screening for toxic chemicals during recycling, and consumer advocacy for cleaner chemistries in carpets.
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