Carpet Recycling in California Hits a Snag

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When you think of recycling, the first image that probably springs to your mind is cans, bottles or paper. Recycling these household materials is second nature to us, but others get overlooked. There are no solid recycling systems in place for tons of stuff that is unfortunately left forgotten in the recycling world.

Right now, California is handling this issue with carpet. Yes, carpet. Unless you’ve renovated your house recently, the thought of carpet disposal likely hasn’t crossed your mind, but it should.

Carpet Matters

It is estimated that nearly 4 billion pounds of carpet is disposed of in the United States each year. Of that, only 1 percent gets recycled.

In fact, carpet is the fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter. One gallon of oil is used to create just 3 square yards of carpet. When that carpet is tossed into a landfill, all those gallons of oil are tossed with it.

Carpet degrades extremely slowly — think hundreds of years — and is exposing its slough of harmful chemicals to the planet all the while.

Carpet is big, too. It takes up a whole lot of space in landfills, meaning less room for other things and thus creating even more of the contaminated dumping grounds.

About 6 percent of discarded carpet gets incinerated, which has its own set of negative environmental health impacts. Because it’s made primarily of oil and toxic materials, carpet’s incineration threatens the rise of multiple health defects. Incinerating used carpet can release mercury, a known health hazard, and dioxin, the most toxic chemical on the planet. Exposure to air polluted by carpet incineration significantly increases risk of asthma, heart attacks and cancer.

California’s Recycling Regulations

The state of California has recognized the problems caused by irresponsible carpet disposal. In 2010, state legislators crafted regulations to push carpet manufacturers to manage their materials for their entire life cycle — not just until the sale is made. The regulations in California were the first of their kind in the nation and gave the U.S. hope for more recycling solutions.

The carpet industry was then kept in line by a set of rules. They were encouraged to support carpet recycling and other ways to divert it from landfills, like reuse. The truth is, recycling carpet is hard work — it’s labor intensive and costly to get done. So, the carpet industry managed to tiptoe around their new regulations, passing costs to the consumer and keeping recycling goals low.

The Carpet America Recovery Effort, aka CARE, took the reins. This decision was a no-brainer, considering CARE’s mission is to increase landfill diversion and recycling of post-consumer carpet — exactly what the new rules called for.

CARE began in 2002, created to oversee similar regulations agreed upon by the carpet industry, multiple states, a few nongovernmental organizations and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since then, CARE has successfully diverted 4.6 billion pounds of discarded carpet from the landfill.

Recycling Flop

But when it came to the regulations set by the state of California in 2010, CARE fell short. Their target rate for carpet diverted from the landfill was 16 percent by the year 2016. CARE did not meet this goal. In fact, they decreased their diversion rate during some years. Only 11 percent of carpet waste was recycled last year.

CARE blames this on competition between companies selling brand-new carpet at lower costs than their recycled stuff.

A branch of the California EPA, known as CalRecycle, recently confronted CARE on this issue. They accused CARE of not responding to the fluctuating consumer market and criticized them for their lack of recycling infrastructure needed for a successful carpet recycling program.

CalRecycle issued a $3.25 million fine against CARE for not upholding their end of the deal and meeting the state’s recycling goals.

The state may have made a dire mistake in appointing CARE, an industry-led organization, to govern the carpet industry recycling efforts. The industry was essentially regulating themselves, keeping recycling costs down by simply not recycling as much as they should.

CARE did surpass the goal of a 16 percent diversion rate this year — 90 days late.

New Regulations

Lawmakers in California are once again working to strengthen the carpet recycling system in the state. The new regulations are ambitious — a recycling goal of 24 percent by the year 2020. The recycling system calls for an advisory group to govern it, made up of local government and environmental leaders rather than carpet industry leaders.

California is the only state with a well-established carpet recycling program for now. CARE actually prevented other states from establishing regulations like California’s by keeping recyclers from supporting other regulatory programs.

With CARE in trouble, perhaps these planet-saving regulations will begin popping up across the country. Until then, you can do your part wherever you are.

Keep Carpet Out of Landfills

After reading about California’s issues, you may be wondering how to dispose of your carpet responsibly. Never fear, this carpet recycling guide will answer all your questions.

If you’ve got old carpet on your hands and aren’t sure where to go, punch your ZIP code into our recycling locator and find the recyclers near you.

An exceptionally great way to keep carpet away from landfills is to not have it at all! Consider ridding your home of environmentally hazardous carpet and opting for eco-friendly flooring, like natural wood or tile. If you do go with carpet, buy the recycled stuff or be sure to ask about recyclability before purchasing.

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Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.
Lauren Murphy