Swept under the carpet: new report reveals the greenwash of the carpet industry in Germany

February 2017 Report
Carpet Recycling

Executive summary

The circular economy has developed into a key issue on the agenda of German and European environmental policy and is often among the key sustainability commitments of the business sector, political institutions and private actors. The circular economy model not only brings benefits to the environment, in the form of resource efficiency and climate protection, but also leads to economic benefits and job creation, as shown by multiple studies.

This report focuses on the implementation of circular economy principles in the carpet sector. In 2016, 700 million square metres of carpets were sold in the EU, which makes it the second biggest market, after the U.S. This sector has a significant impact on the environment, not only in the manufacturing process, but also at the end-of-life stage. Every year around 1.6 million tonnes of used carpets are disposed of in Europe – around 400,000 tonnes in Germany alone.

The carpet industry is a sector where circular solutions already exist, yet they need to be scaled up and implemented in the entire sector:

  • Carpets need to be designed with reuse and full recyclability in mind;
  • Infrastructure between manufacturers, retailers and municipalities for separate collection of carpet waste to prevent contamination and enable easier reuse and recycling;
  • Recycling facilities that provide high quality recycling of carpet material back to carpet material, in a closed-loop system

The report describes a reality that is still far from this vision, and a sector still far away from a functioning circular economy with closed material loops. After its useful life, almost all German carpets are burnt in incinerators. In Europe, around 60 percent of carpets are landfilled while the rest is almost always incinerated. In the absence of any transparency on the recycling rates in the sector, the precise amount of recycled carpet in Europe is very difficult to establish. The authors of the report, however, believe that less than 3 percent of carpets sold are collected for recycling, and it remains unclear how much of this “recycling” is in reality “down-cycling” – a transformation into a product of an inferior quality that is generally not recyclable at the end of its useful life. Moreover, the term “recycling” is also used to refer to recycling of pre-consumer material or even for “thermal recycling”, i.e. incineration.

In addition to this, the research carried out for this report highlights that the two leading manufacturers in the EU market and self-proclaimed sustainability leaders, Interface and Desso, lag behind their own ambitious sustainability and circular economy commitments.

Desso and Interface: discrepancy between environmental claims and reality
For several years, these two manufacturers have set high environmental targets and sustainability commitments. Interface has committed to producing “zero waste” by 2020, while Desso says it will incorporate all its products into a “Cradle-to-Cradle®” system. These commitments have been very effective, as the two companies are frequently invited to share their learnings on circular economy in the media or at events. However, the research for this report has revealed that Interface and Desso have recycling rates of carpets that seem at odds with their sustainability goals: the companies respectively reclaim only around 1.5 and 3 per cent of their sold carpets at the end of life for recycling.

Germany: Overcapacity and false incentives for incineration
The overcapacity for the treatment of municipal and commercial waste in Germany encompasses a total of 2 million tonnes and is contrary to the idea of the circular economy, especially since low prices encourage burning of recyclable materials and products, like carpets.

Conclusion: Transition towards circular economy must start immediately
To direct the carpet sector towards a true circular economy, immediate actions must be taken by carpet manufacturers, public authorities, consumers and retailers. Due to the relatively long lifespan of carpets, the impacts of these measures will not be visible immediately, but several years down the line. The report concludes that the transition must start immediately. Otherwise, the industry will be trapped for many years in a system with unsustainable waste disposal structures and a linear economic model.


Carpet manufacturers must integrate reuse and recycling objectives into the design phase, increase collection and recycling rates, scale up recycling capacities in Germany and clearly label the materials used in their products to facilitate recycling by other actors.

German policy makers must introduce the principle of product stewardship, set standards for reuse and recycling by means of a mandatory bulky waste regulation, and make the incineration of recyclable materials financially unattractive by introducing an incineration tax.

Retailers must offer a wide range of sustainable products from recycled materials, inform consumers about the environmental benefits of reused and recycled carpet and offer takeback schemes in a consumer-friendly way.

Consumers should request information about the reusability, recyclability and environmental impacts of carpets and make sustainable decisions with this information when purchasing carpets.

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