28th Jan 2021


Roll out red carpet - or recycle it? Green Deal's EU blindspot

  • In the UK, for example, 73 percent of carpet is still being incinerated, a further 22 percent is shredded and used for equestrian arenas, just two percent is recycled back into a carpet product and less than one percent is reused (Photo: Mr Zebra)

With the Green Deal taking centre stage in European politics, the pressure is on for all industries to shift to a more sustainable business model.

If you want to see progress on climate goals and circularity, keep an eye on the carpet industry.

Read and decide

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The Netherlands, with a 20 percent market share in European carpet demand, has started looking into legislation that makes producers responsible for the treatment or disposal of their carpets at the end of their life.

In December, the Dutch parliament approved a motion by MP Jessica van Eijs (D66), urging the ministry of infrastructure and waterways (I&W) to explore if Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation should be implemented for all flooring types, starting with carpets.

This kind of legislation is much needed.

For decades, leading carpet producers have been innovating to decrease their environmental footprint. A number of producers have made pledges to reduce their reliance on glues, use fewer types of materials and reduce hazardous substances.

Carpet recycling - negligible

Despite this, however, the majority of carpet still ends up being incinerated, releasing hazardous toxics and wasting valuable resources.

In Europe the total amount of carpet waste is 1.6m tonnes every year. The rate of recycling is shockingly low at 1 to 3 percent. Recyclers stay away from recycling old carpets because they don't know which (potentially dangerous) chemicals they contain, or because they are very complex due to multiple materials used.

Something needs to change, but it's becoming increasingly clear that carpet producers cannot solve the problem individually.

Currently, once a carpet is sold, the producer loses track of it. No single company has yet cracked the puzzle on how to recuperate carpets that have reached their end-of-life.

All levels of the supply chain need to work together, to ensure that all carpet is recycled back into carpet at its end-of-life.

Legislation is needed to create the infrastructure for a circular and sustainable industry, and set out a clear framework for companies to make the necessary investments.

This is why the parliamentary vote in the Netherlands is so important for the future of both the Dutch and the European carpet sector.

Legislation creates a level playing field for all stakeholders, which enables circular development and investments. Unlike businesses, who have a vested interest, a neutral entity like the government can act as a broker between different stakeholders, bringing all parties involved to an agreement in line with the European Green Deal and its aims of a climate-neutral Europe.

EPR legislation will hold companies responsible for the waste they create and stimulate the market for reuse and recycling.

For instance, by taxing the use of non-sustainable or virgin materials, EPR incentivises businesses to behave in a sustainable and circular way.

By introducing mandatory material passports, a ban on families of toxic substances and eco-modulation, EPR legislation can tackle obstacles for the circular economy that free market mechanisms have not been able to overcome.

The Dutch government now needs to show visionary leadership by translating this into ambitious legislation, that can also serve as a blueprint for other EU member states and the European Commission.

Too often necessary legislation is postponed in favour of often ineffective voluntary initiatives.

For example, two years ago the European Carpet and Rug Association (ECRA) signed the European Plastics Industry Circular Economy Voluntary Commitments.

However, the industry has not yet fulfilled any of the promises that they set out in its commitment, drawing criticism from NGOs.

A recent report by the Changing Markets Foundation and UK Without Incineration Network revealed that under Carpet Recycling UK's voluntary programme, which has been running since 2008, 73 percent of carpet diverted from landfill in the UK is still being incinerated, at an approximate annual climate cost of £16.5m [€19.8m] to society.

A further 22 percent is shredded and used for equestrian arenas, which both represents a waste of resources, and poses potential risks to the environment and health.

And just two percent is recycled back into a product from carpet fibres with less than one percent of reuse.

'Voluntary' is not enough

Imagine how much progress could have been made in twelve years via legislation aiming to reuse carpet waste to manufacture new carpets.

This is where authorities have to play an important role.

Voluntary initiatives within the carpet sector, and many other sectors for that matter, are unable to set the level of ambition needed to achieve the Green Deal and the Paris Agreement.

At an EU level, Interface, Tarkett and DSM Niaga have expressed support for mandatory EPR legislation. Increasingly, Dutch carpet producers are beginning to realise this and support our call for ambitious EPR-legislation.

The Netherlands, a big carpet-exporter, is well positioned to lead the way in creating an Extended Producer Responsibility that shifts this industry to a circular economy model. Such developments are equally needed at a European level.

The commission has rightfully renewed its commitment to the Circular Economy Action Plan, and has identified the construction and textiles industries as priority sectors.

We therefore believe that, by the end of this decade, the EU-carpet sector should be one of the best examples of a successful transition towards the circular economy. So let's get to it.

Author bio

Rob Buurman is director Recycling Netwerk Benelux, where Siu Lie Tan is a project coordinator.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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