Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why Carpet Recycling Needs Product Stewardship Legislation

By Bill Sheehan, Executive Director, Product Policy Institute

Over the last few years, the need for carpet stewardship programs has become increasingly urgent.  State legislators are looking to manufacturers to help reduce the environmental and financial burdens of disposing vast quantities of carpet.  Made overwhelmingly from non-renewable petroleum, carpet is a major contributor to both landfills and climate change. 
In California alone, an estimated 1.3 million tons of carpet is disposed of in landfills annually, comprising 3.2 percent of all disposed solid waste in the state.  California ranks carpet as a top contributor to the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.  By the carpet industry’s own calculation, only 4.5% of the millions of tons sold nationally each year are recycled.

In September 2011, a year and a half of negotiations between carpet manufacturers, government regulators and other stakeholders broke down. The objective of the negotiations was to sign a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding to follow one that was expiring, signed in 2002.  The primary purpose of both MOUs was to set recycling and landfill diversion targets for carpet.  The 2002 MOU set a voluntary goal of 25% recycling by 2012. By 2010, after eight years of failed voluntary policies by the carpet industry, the recycling rate was essentially no higher than in 2002.  [The 2012 MOU Report on Negotiations and related documents are posted on Product Policy Institute’s Carpet web page.]

The 2012 MOU negotiations collapsed over the issue of sustainable financing for carpet recycling.  In 2010, California became the first state in the U.S. (and still the only one) to pass a producer responsibility law for carpet.  Due to political realities contributing to the bill’s likely passage, it was eventually supported by the Carpet and Rug Institute and the Carpet America Recovery Effort.  AB 2398 created a level playing field (all carpet makers selling into the state must participate), and a producer-based financing mechanism to build the infrastructure to recycle carpet.  The California Carpet Product Stewardship Program requires that all carpet sold in the state be subject to a fee of five cents per square yard.  The revenues from the fees are collected and used by carpet manufacturers to build recycling infrastructure and boost carpet recycling in the state. 

The effects of the law are already apparent.  Over the last year, collection and processing facilities in California grew from 4 to 18, spurring new economic development and creating new jobs.  Nationally, California’s carpet stewardship law is the only initiative driving investments in recycling, not to mention the jobs that come with it. 

Unfortunately, even though the implementation of California’s carpet stewardship law has been an early success, carpet manufacturers’ are opposed to any new state legislation. During the MOU negotiations they offered no alternatives to finance recycling.  In September, the Carpet and Rug Institute joined a new trade association, the Product Management Alliance, to oppose all producer responsibility legislation in the U.S. 

While all parties appeared to negotiate in good faith, and agreement was reached on several technical issues, the process revealed a fundamental disagreement about industry’s responsibility for life-cycle impacts of carpet, including when consumers are done with it.  Carpet industry negotiators never really accepted the idea that they should bear primary responsibility (with costs passed on to consumers), or that market forces should be harnessed by incorporating the cost of recycling in to carpet prices.  They spoke about carpet recycling as an added expense at a time the industry cannot afford it. 

Hardened by a decade of virtually no progress on the 25% recycling goal, state regulators and NGOs felt the second time around that voluntary goals without a financing mechanism are unlikely to be any more successful than the 2002 MOU. 

Carpet manufacturers proposed waiting three years to see how California progresses.  State regulators argued that postponing consideration of sustainable financing is not a sufficient basis on which to sign a new MOU.  California is not the only model, or even the best model.  For example, specifying fees in legislation lets carpet makers off the hook if the program fails to achieve desired results. The 25 state producer responsibility electronics laws adopted since 2003 have shown the value of legislative experimentation.  State regulators also understand that industry activity in California is unlikely to benefit other states.

In the 2012 legislative session, at least two state carpet bills will be in play: in Washington State, SB 5110 introduced by Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles; and in New York, AB 492 introduced by Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh. 

Without more state legislation that creates a level playing field and requires all carpet makers to finance recycling infrastructure by incorporating the cost in the price of carpet, it is highly unlikely that significant investments will be made to back up any recycling goals.  If that’s the case, we’ll have another “lost decade” with most used carpet in America wasted in landfills and incinerators, instead of being reclaimed and remade into valuable new products.  Gone too, will be the many new jobs that could have been created in collection, processing and manufacturing. 


  1. I agree that new legislation is unlikely in many states, but I don't think it's economic reality that makes it so. If anything, economic reality argues for quickly establishing a system that ensures the lavish waste of resources in carpet comes to an end.

    I am curious as to what the previous commenter means by "government's unwillingness to get involved in a non-fiscal way." This seems very oblique -- can you just state what are you are asking for?

    Finally, public sentiment also supports mandatory recycling as well as recycling that is fostered by incentives. Bottle bills are very popular with the public, for example.

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