The Carpet Industry Starts to Clean Up

By Jim Vallette

These are revolutionary times in the carpet industry. Thanks to a confluence of rising consumer demands, new regulations, and product innovations, building developers can now find carpets that avoid many toxic substances. More products are being designed to be recycled. Best of all, some of these are affordable, not just premium, options.

Building developers have an under-appreciated influence on what’s inside the products they specify. They have helped to eliminate many highly toxic chemicals from the supply chain. In just the last few years, manufacturers removed formaldehyde from fiberglass and some mineral wool batt insulation, and phthalate plasticizers from most vinyl resilient flooring, not because of regulations, but rather, consumer demand.

Similar pressures led to major changes in carpet in 2017. The year opened with the industry under fire for its paltry recycling rates. Carpet is a major waste stream. About 60% of all flooring sold in the U.S. is carpet, and its turnover rate is astounding. In some buildings, like hotels, it’s unusual for carpet to stay more than a couple years. And, only five percent of the country’s carpet waste is recycled; the rest winds up in landfills and incinerators.

In January, Mohawk Industries responded to this challenge with a new line of carpet made from PET face fibers bonded to a PET backing. PET, although it is a petrochemical, has no known direct health hazards. The company says the face and backing are easily separated by heat and reusable in new floor coverings. Tarkett sells a similar product in Europe. While these products hold promise for recyclability, the manufacturers have not publicly disclosed all contents, including potentially toxic substances like stain repellants.

The industry has long used chemicals called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to make face fibers stain repellant. “Long-chain” PFAS are developmental and reproductive toxicants that persist in the body and bioaccumulate in the environment. Although the industry phased out long-chain PFAS a decade ago, it continues to use “short-chain” PFAS, about which similar concerns are emerging. Federal agencies have warned that children may be exposed to PFAS when they are lying, crawling, and playing on carpet. Thanks again to consumer demand, the carpet fiber industry is moving away from PFAS. At least four leading manufacturers sell plastic carpet fibers that do not contain them, the latest being Tarkett, the world’s largest flooring company, which announced its phase-out was complete in December.

Another common material used in carpet comes from a surprising source: coal-fired power plants. Upon the creation of “recycled content” credits in the early 2000s, manufacturers filled carpet backings with fly ash. Prominent green building certifications reward recycled content regardless of the source of waste and what it contains. Pollution control devices on power plants transfer mercury, a potent neuro-toxicant, and other heavy metals like lead and arsenic into fly ash. And yet this became the most common filler material in carpet over the past 15 years.

The carpet industry didn’t initially disclose what type of “pre-consumer” waste it was using for filler. When it was discovered about six years ago, major customers started to demand fly ash-free carpet. Some manufacturers provided this option upon request, but the good news is that it is no longer a specialty item. We’ve found out that the largest carpet company and the largest retailer in the U.S. eliminated the use of fly ash filler. According to Shaw Industries, at the end of 2016 they stopped using fly ash, and Home Depot announced in October they would no longer be selling carpet containing fly ash.

Home Depot’s new policy on carpet bans many other toxic chemicals, such as phthalate plasticizers and formaldehyde. But there are many others left to eliminate. These hazardous chemicals can be emitted into dust and air during use and from operations that recycle carpet.

Which brings me to one more major change in the carpet industry: California’s new carpet recycling mandate, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in October. It requires the carpet industry to achieve, in California, a 24% recycling rate by 2020, up from 10% in 2015. This will require significant diligence to ensure the carpet waste does no harm as it is recycled. The industry should respond to this mandate by establishing best practices that protect worker health and the environment.

Identifying and eliminating toxics from carpet in both waste and new designs, is essential. Green home builders can help by understanding what chemicals are in carpet before buying it, and demanding that manufacturers disclose this information if it is not available. An informed marketplace, as we have seen in 2017, leads to transformation.

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Jim Vallette is Research Director for the not-for-profit Healthy Building Network and lead author of its October 2017 report, Eliminating Toxics from Carpet: Lessons for the Future of Recycling.