Smoke and Mirrors: exposing the reality of carpet ‘recycling’ in the UK

November 2019 Report
Smoke and Mirrors - graphic of businessman sweeping dirt into the environment

Executive summary

Europe is the second largest carpet market (after the US) and plays a significant role in manufacturing. Overall, approximately 65% of the EU carpet demand is fulfilled by EU-based manufacturing, with Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK being leading manufacturing countries. European carpet demand was estimated to be 698 million m2 in 2016; in 2018, the European carpet market size was valued at £41.4 billion. A significant portion of Europe’s carpet demand is driven by the UK, where carpets made up 73% (or 210 million m2) of the total volume of the UK’s flooring sector in 2010.

Carpet represents a significant waste stream in the UK. It is estimated that 400,000 tonnes of carpet are discarded in the UK every year – roughly equivalent to 256 million m2, or 36,000 football fields. The UK’s market, in terms of volume, is expected to expand at a rate of 3.3% between 2019 and 2025. At the same time, there is an increasing focus in the UK and globally on the urgent need to address waste; not only single-use plastics – an area of huge public concern over the past few years – but also bulkier items, such as mattresses, furniture and carpet. In December 2018, the UK government’s Resources and waste strategy for England listed carpet as one of its five areas of priority for assessing policy options, under ‘bulky waste’.

Eleven years ago, a voluntary organisation was founded in the UK with the aim of diverting carpet from landfill. While the organisation, Carpet Recycling UK (CRUK), has publicly celebrated an increase in landfill diversion (from 2% in 2007 to 44% in 2018), the majority of this diversion (73% of overall ‘recovery’) takes the form of incineration – leading to negative health and climate impacts and burning valuable resources that could have been recycled. Of the remaining diverted carpet, 22% is downcycled into equestrian products, whereby old carpet is shredded for use in outdoor equestrian areas (manèges); 2% is classified as plastic recovery; 2% is classified as fibre recovery (such as carpet underlay, automotive wadding and growing media for plants); and just 1% is reused.

This briefing, based on research by Eunomia Consulting, the UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) and the Changing Markets Foundation, takes a look at CRUK’s performance over the past decade and exposes both a severe case of greenwash and the failure of voluntary industry initiatives to drive the transition towards circular economy. Instead of focusing on increasing carpet-to-carpet recycling, CRUK has relied heavily on incineration and downcycling. With regard to incineration alone, the cost to society of the adverse climate impact of the CO2 released from burning carpets is estimated to be £16.5 million in the UK in 2019.

Given that so little progress has been made over the past decade, it is time for the UK Government to introduce mandatory legislation for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in the carpet industry. We propose a toolkit of measures developed by Eunomia Consulting, which have already been supported by leading European carpet manufacturers, as a blueprint for the UK government to kick-start circularity in the sector.

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