Testing Carpet for Toxics: Chemicals affecting human health and hindering the circular economy

December 2018 Report
Testing Carpet for Toxics: report cover

Executive summary

About this report

The objective of this investigation was to provide a snapshot of the toxic substances present in carpets sold by some of the largest carpet manufacturers in the United States (US). Products from each company were tested. This report summarizes the findings and of these tests and compares them to the companies’ marketing claims, as well as to regulatory requirements and certification standards.

The need to design for recycling

The US is the largest market in the world for carpet and home to some of the largest carpet producers, resulting in 11 billion ft² of carpet sold per year. Approximately 3.5% of all waste disposed in US landfills is carpet discard—equivalent to 2 million US tons. Less than 5% of carpet discard is recycled, and less than 1% is recycled in a closed loop (i.e., turned back into carpet). The rest is downcycled into less valuable products.

While the European Union (EU) announced ambitious circular economy goals in 2018 that will apply to all its Member States, the US does not have a federal recycling mandate, and only half of US states have any mandatory recycling laws. Most state-based programs that focus on diverting waste from landfill are increasingly looking to remove construction and demolition debris, including carpet, from landfill. In furtherance of that goal, in 2010, California became the first constituency in the world to adopt a law placing responsibility on carpet manufacturers for recycling carpets. Updated in 2017, the law requires that 24% of carpets sold in the state be recycled by 2020.

One of the main obstacles to achieving closed-loop carpet recycling is that these products were not designed with reuse and recycling in mind. Among the design flaws is the fact that carpets often contain so many toxic chemicals that the recyclate becomes too contaminated to be used in new products.

Another challenge in enabling closed-loop cycles for less toxic carpet is that it is hard to source clean recycled feedstocks. The carpet industry has contributed to this problem by operating for decades under a veil of secrecy about the chemicals and materials used in manufacturing. Regulatory programs that lack teeth, combined with certification programs that fail to consider the most typical chemicals of concern, have enabled the industry to use over 40 “chemicals of concern”– chemicals known to cause or suspected of causing cancer, endocrine disruption, and a variety of other negative health effects. This lack of transparency also makes it challenging for consumers to know whether manufacturers’ myriad health and environmental claims are true.

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