Testing for Toxics: How chemicals in European carpets are harming health and hindering circular economy

October 2018 Report
Testing for Toxics: report cover

Executive summary

This report reveals the presence of toxics – including phthalates, fluorinated stain repellents and halogenated flame retardants – in carpets produced and sold by some of the largest carpet manufacturers in Europe. The findings pinpoint a lack of comprehensive chemicals regulation and show failings of self-regulation in the carpet industry. They lay bare how toxic chemicals in European carpets – including endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and reprotoxic substances – are posing a potential health risk to European Union (EU) citizens and hindering the EU’s transition to a circular economy. The report also highlights the legislative opportunity to address this in upcoming EU work on the interface between toxicity and recyclability, and argues that these two issues must be tackled immediately to realise a healthy and safe circular economy.

The EU is the second-largest market in the world for carpets (after the US) and home to some of the largest carpet manufacturers. It is estimated that 65% of EU demand for carpet is fulfilled by EU-based manufacturing, with the largest companies being located in the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK. It has also been estimated that less than 3% of carpet placed on the market is recycled in the EU – a worryingly low percentage, and one that must increase in line with the EU’s circular economy targets, such as the 65% municipal waste recycling target by 2030.

Previous research has highlighted that over 50 toxic substances can be present in European carpets, including endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and mutagens. This research has also exposed how these toxics are insufficiently regulated, via both EU legislation and certification schemes, leaving consumers and workers exposed and without adequate information about what may be present in their carpet.

This report builds on previous research and goes a step further by testing toxics present in some of the most popular European carpet brands. For this investigation, two carpets were tested from each of the seven largest manufacturers in Europe: Associated Weavers, Balta Industries, Beaulieu International Group, Forbo, Interface, Milliken and Tarkett (Desso). Where possible, the most popular carpet for each manufacturer was selected for testing as well as the most ‘ecologically friendly’ option (as marketed by the companies themselves). Additionally, one carpet sold by Dutch company Donkersloot was selected for testing on the basis that it claims to represent an eco-innovation on the market. The carpets were tested for the presence of toxic chemicals by VU Amsterdam (Netherlands), the Ecology Center (US) and the University of Notre Dame (US).

The testing found a number of chemical groups in the carpet samples, including phthalates, flame retardants and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), as well as indications of antimicrobials, isocyanates, nonylphenol and bisphenol A (BPA). Several of these substances have been classified as, or are suspected to be, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and/or causes of developmental harm. These are worrying findings, as consumers – as well of people handling carpet, like installers and recyclers – are exposed to these products on a daily basis.

In particular, the investigation revealed a number of phthalates present in European carpets. The Forbo Westbond carpet was found to contain the phthalate DEHP, which the EU has classified as toxic for reproduction and endocrine disrupting for human health and the environment. DEHP has been banned in the EU since 2015; however, a worrying exemption has been granted that permits its use in recycled PVC for certain uses, including carpets.

The flame retardants TCPP and TDCPP were also found to be present in carpets tested in this investigation. TDCPP (found in Milliken carpet) is a suspected carcinogen. Indications of nonylphenol, ethoxylated were detected in one carpet. Nonylphenol is toxic to aquatic organisms and categorised under the EU Classified, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation as a reproductive toxic, suspected of damaging fertility and causing harm to the unborn child.

Six of the 15 samples tested in this investigation contained recycled content, either in the backing (for example, recycled PVC or polyurethane) or the face fibre (most commonly recycled nylon). Of the six carpets with recycled content, four were found to contain tested substances, including phthalates, flame retardants and indications of isocyanates. These results indicate that recycled content can contain toxics – similar to those found in virgin content – but also that it seems possible to have recycled content without toxics.

Of the 15 European carpet samples tested, no toxics were detected in three carpets: Beaulieu Avenue, Desso (Tarkett) Airmaster and Interface Composure. Although it cannot definitively be said that these carpets do not contain any toxics (due to limitations of the testing method and scope of the investigation), it is encouraging to see that cleaner carpets already exist on the market. Additionally, as two of the three products (the Desso and Interface carpets) contain recycled content and are also marketed as being designed for a circular economy, this lends weight to the argument that the goals of a circular economy and non-toxicity can be realised in parallel.

This report provides a case study of how policy loopholes and inconsistencies can lead to suboptimal outcomes for both consumers and actors trying to realise circular economy.

It concludes with policy recommendations, which call on governments and the EU to:

  • Expand bans on hazardous chemicals and close loopholes on how chemicals are addressed in different product groups;
  • End exemptions for chemicals in recycled materials through the upcoming revision of the interface between chemicals, products and waste legislation, including regulating chemical groups instead of individual chemicals; and
  • Put in place measures to realise a circular economy in the carpet sector, including Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for the sector which set minimum requirements for non-toxic and circular carpet) and eco-modulated fees to reward manufacturers that go beyond the minimum.

Finally, manufacturers must take immediate measures to ensure their products are designed for a healthy and circular economy (toxic-free, durable, reusable and recyclable). Although policies would definitely help to set a level playing field, this report shows that carpet manufacturers already have solutions (carpets in which no toxics were detected) on the market; they now need to bring these solutions to scale to become part of a toxic-free circular economy.

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