Swept under the Carpet: Exposing the Greenwash of the U.S. Carpet Industry

December 2016 Report
Carpet Recycling

Executive summary

More Carpet than We Know What to Do With
In 2014, the carpet industry in the United States (U.S.) produced 11.7 billion square feet of carpet and rugs. Approximately 3.5% of all waste disposed in U.S. landfills (4 billion pounds) is carpet discard. Despite the existence of the industry-led Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) initiative to responsibly manage carpet waste, an astounding 89% is discarded in landfill, 6% is incinerated, and less than 5% is recycled. Of the 5% that is recycled, only 20% is recycled in a closed loop- i.e. turned back into carpet, the rest is down-cycled into less valuable products. That means that only 1% of carpet discards are recycled back into carpet each year.

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. On a limited planet, it is imperative that big consumers, like the U.S., stop wasting. 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.

At the End of their Life Carpets can re-enter circular economy
In a circular economy, when products reach the end of use, they are reused or recycled, not incinerated or landfilled. Reuse prevents the need for producing more, saving resources and preventing waste. The best opportunities for reuse are with carpet tile. A few companies are offering these products.

Recycling carpet that is currently on the market is technically challenging. This is due to the choice of materials or bad design that prevents easy separation of different layers and components of carpet. For example, carpet materials are often mixed together or glued in a manner in which the backing and the face fibers are difficult to separate and therefore recycling is more challenging. Material choices also determine recyclability. Currently only nylon 6, nylon 6.6 and polyethylene (PET) fibers and backing can be recycled and only nylon 6 face-fiber is currently economically recyclable back into face fiber.

In some policies, incineration is considered third place in the waste management hierarchy – some find it preferable to landfilling because of the energy recovery potential. The organizations that authored this report find it no better than the last option – landfilling. Burning carpet removes the incentive to recycle and harms communities and the environment. It 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.

Greenwashing and Undue Influence of Major Producers
To increase recycling, the carpet industry needs to start with better product design, produce carpets from recyclable materials, and decrease the use of toxic chemicals applied to their products. However, manufacturers have no incentive to design sustainable carpeting if their responsibility ends with selling to retailers. Advocates of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) – the idea that the polluter should have physical and financial responsibility for products they put into the marketplace- believe that the carpet industry is ripe for producer responsibility. It’s an easily segregated waste stream with significant recycling potential, if designed right. In an EPR model that respects the environment and human health, the carpet industry (not taxpayers or consumers) would finance end of life management and be required to divert carpet waste from landfill and combustion in incinerators or cement kilns to recycling and reuse.

In 2010, California became the first jurisdiction in the world to try to hold the industry accountable for the waste it generates by enacting AB 2398 (J. Perez), a law that made carpet manufacturers responsible for establishing a landfill diversion program for carpets and established reuse and recycling as primary goals for end of life management. However, rather than make the industry fund the management of carpet waste, industry lobbyists succeeded in ensuring that the law allowed collection of fees charged to consumers. Currently, California carpet customers are paying 20 cents per square yard to fund the industry product stewardship program, which amounted to a $10 million fund in 2015 that was managed by CARE.

However, under CARE stewardship program has failed to provide meaningful advances towards the circular economy. In the first five years in California (2011-2015), carpet recycling increased by a mere 2%, from 28 million pounds to 35 million pounds. The quantity of carpet that went to incinerators for disposal more than doubled (from 15.7 million lbs. to 30.6 million lbs.). The industry set a goal of a 16% recycling rate for carpet in California by 2016 however, in 2014 and 2015, the recycling rate fell from 12% to 10%. The industry is failing to meet its own targeted recycling rates and vast quantities of carpet recovered by the industry in California and the rest of the U.S. are ending up in landfills or being burned.

Far from taking concrete, actionable steps to move towards a circular economy, the largest manufacturers in the carpet industry – Shaw and Mohawk – have focused on maintaining the wasteful status quo. An investigation conducted for this report revealed that the major players in the global carpet industry have purposefully undermined California’s program while actively lobbying 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 EPR type programs in any jurisdiction. To date, CARE and its companion, the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) – an industry trade group – have managed to kill legislation in Connecticut, Minnesota, Illinois and Washington State.

CARE is firmly under the thumb of the biggest players in the carpet industry. Shaw, Mohawk, CRI all have seats on the organization’s board of directors. There is not even an attempt to disguise this obvious conflict of interest. CARE is located in the very same building as CRI in the heart of the U.S. carpet industry in Dalton, Georgia. Not surprisingly, CARE tends to follow the lead of its corporate leadership, which has been more committed to undermining EPR schemes than to increasing recycling.


Carpet production technology is advancing and many companies are investing in technologies that will help to make carpet fully recyclable. Big carpet companies, retailers and policy-makers need to support these kind of technical advances and ensure that they get progressively larger market shares. The report ends with key recommendations on how different actors can facilitate the transition of the carpet sector towards truly sustainable circular economy:

  • Reject the CARE program In California, regulators should reject the five-year plan put forward by CARE which is unlikely to yield measurable progress and require a new stewardship entity take over- one that is administered by neutral parties.
  • Amend AB 2398 – make producers pay and ensure they pay more for carpet that is landfilled or incinerated.
  • Prohibit shipping carpet overseas, limit landfilling, and ban incineration.
  • Assure adequate and easy collection – rural and urban disposal should be provided.

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