Strengthening the California Industry Carpet Recycling Program

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

As California lawmakers consider legislation (AB 1158, Chu, D-San Jose) to strengthen the industry-managed carpet recycling program, it is helpful to take a look at the latest corporate sustainability report by Mohawk, the world’s largest flooring company and a major industry player.

The report ticks off several encouraging recycling statistics. The company says it recycled 5 billion plastic bottles into carpets last year. That sounds good, but in the context of corporate responsibility in a Circular Economy, it can be deceptive as well. The report says “Mohawk is committed to keeping more materials in our manufacturing loop and out of landfills — the essence of a circular economy.”

It’s good to divert materials from landfills, but a circular economy’s chief aim is to design materials so they can be recycled indefinitely, preferably in a closed loop or failing that, extract the most value from them in a regenerative fashion. Plastic bottles are already a great example of closed loop recyclability — they can be readily recycled many times over into new plastic bottles. But in carpet, PET fibers are more difficult and costly to recycle than traditional nylon fibers. So what happens to the plastic bottles Mohawk “recycles” into carpet? 89% of discarded carpet in the U.S. ends up in landfills, 6% is incinerated, and less than 5% is recycled. So despite a positive intent, making plastic bottles into carpeting appears to end up wasting the resource in most cases, and downcycling it at best.

Recently, Mohawk launched a PET-based carpet that it claims is 100% recyclable. This seems like a step in the right direction but until the company also commits to shift a meaningful portion of production to this model, and funds recycling technology and logistics at scale needed to recover it in volume, there’s no assurance the material will actually be recycled.

The carpet industry has shown little initiative in designing carpets that not only can be readily recycled, but actually are recycled in line with Circular Economy principles. As a result, California passed legislation in 2010 requiring manufacturers to develop a collection and recycling program. The program raised millions of dollars from consumer fees, and the industry set a state goal of 16 percent carpet recycling by 2016. But instead, the rate fell from 12 percent to 10 percent in 2015, after which it grew slightly to 11 percent in 2016. In April 2017, the state recycling agency CalRecycle issued a finding that the program had failed to achieve “continuous and meaningful improvement” in rates of recycling and diversion of post-consumer carpet as required by the law. CalRecycle rejected the industry’s program plans and proposed $3 million in fines.

AB 1158, the bill pending in the California legislature would strengthen carpet recycling in the state. It sets a recycling rate of 24 percent by 2020, opens the industry-run recycling program (known as Carpet America Recovery Effort) to stakeholder review by an advisory committee, and bars use of recycling fees collected from the public for incineration, paying penalties, or suing the state.

As You Sow works with shareholders who believe companies need to take greater responsibility for the post-consumer portion of the life cycle of products. One month ago, we invited Mohawk and Shaw to start a dialogue with shareholders on carpet design and recycling. So far, we have heard nothing from these companies.

We are pleased that two major carpet companies, Interface and Tarkett, have endorsed AB 1158 for taking constructive and sensible actions designed to improve recycling of carpet in California. Last we heard, the two industry leaders Mohawk and Shaw, opposed the bill. It might be different if Shaw and Mohawk had built a better recycling model in other states, but there is no national carpet recycling program, or recycling goals. In fact, the industry has opposed mandatory recycling programs in other states. As a result, much of the bulky, cumbersome carpet waste ends up in landfills and imposes significant costs on local governments for its management.

As You Sow believes the California model holds promise and deserves full industry support of these modest legislative reforms to tweak the program so it can achieve better results. There seems to be a disconnect between Mohawk putting recyclable carpet on the market, but opposing efforts to improve a system to collect those materials and ensure they actually get recycled. We will continue to engage publicly-traded companies to take more responsibility to design carpets for recycling, and ensure that programs are in place to ensure that carpets actually get collected and recycled.