Time for an eco-design revolution on carpets and mattresses

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

97% of synthetic carpets go to landfill or are burnt each year in Europe because they cannot be easily recycled. [darkday / Flickr]

A lot more must be done to incentivise everyday product recyclability, writes Ward Mosmuller. Bulky products that are not recycled today – like carpets, mattresses and furniture – would be a good place to start, he argues.

Ward Mosmuller is Director of EU Affairs at DSM, a Dutch multinational active in the fields of health, nutrition and materials.

Can you imagine the scale of Europe’s annual waste mountain of ‘everyday’ products?

To help, let me give you some figures to illustrate the volume of big, bulky, one-product polluters that are sent to landfill or incinerated each year: 30 million mattresses; 16 million tonnes of textiles (mainly clothes); 1.6 million tonnes of carpets; and 10 million tonnes of reusable furniture.

As EU policy shifts incrementally, but inevitably, towards a circular economy, this environmental damage and lost economic value is becoming a serious issue that can no longer be ignored by the European Institutions.

Fixing the hole in Europe’s policy response

There is currently an unnecessary policy gap that supports the unsustainable manufacturing processes that lead to these products reaching landfill. The Circular Economy package proposed by the European Commission in 2015 is a very good first step, but mainly considers products at their ‘end of life’, without incentivising or enforcing improvements to product recyclability through smart ecodesign at the ‘beginning of life’.

Meanwhile, the Ecodesign Directive – while very successful in driving innovation and triggering energy savings for both the environment and the consumer – addresses only the energy efficiency of electrical products (think fridges and vacuum cleaners).

Recognising that a lot more must be done to incentivise everyday product recyclability, political pressure is now increasing for ecodesign principles to be extended to a wide-range of products. The European Council has called on the European Commission to identify those product categories which have the highest potential for circularity; and on 25 April, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee will vote on its review of the Eco-design Directive, which includes a call for the European Commission to put forward a proposal on extending the ecodesign principle to cover non-energy related products.

Economic and environmental benefits

The economic arguments for enabling an ecodesign revolution are compelling. A joint study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey found that the Circular Economy could boost Europe’s resource productivity by 3% by 2030 and generate net cost savings of €600 billion.

The benefits in terms of green job creation are also considerable, with the European Environmental Bureau estimating that cutting furniture waste alone, could create up to 157,000 new jobs.

From an Environmental perspective, reducing the millions of tonnes of material waste going to landfill and being incinerated will also dramatically reduce Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. Friends of the Earth estimates that recycling more materials in Europe would save an estimated 148 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (or as much as taking 47 million cars off the road per year).

The innovation is here

DSM and other companies have already started the work of innovating along the value chain by applying ecodesign principles to create everyday products that are fully recyclable back into the same product. DSM is, for example – with its joint venture partner Niaga – producing and selling the world’s first 100% recyclable carpet, and developing other fully recyclable products including mattresses, particleboard, medium-density fibreboard and other panel materials.

This work is premised on a non-negotiable product design philosophy that is about dramatically reducing the complexity of products by limiting the amount of ingredients and materials used; and using materials that are healthier and fully recyclable, but without compromising on performance.

The reason that 97% of synthetic carpets go to landfill or are burnt each year in Europe – resulting in the destruction of 3-4 billion euros of materials each year – is that virtually all conventional carpets are made from a complex set of materials which are permanently glued together with latex. They cannot be fully recycled because of the toxic chemicals contained within the materials, and because separating the component materials for recycling is either not possible, too difficult, or too expensive.

Enabling the eco-design revolution

Whilst the eco-design revolution is inevitable we must recognise that it will have a dramatic impact on a number of sectors and companies. It will require them to fundamentally rethink their approach to product development and design, the ingredients and materials their products are made of, manufacturing, and even their business models.

So, whilst policy-makers need to create an ambitious policy and regulatory framework for accelerating the adoption of ecodesign, we need to be pragmatic in terms of how this is rolled-out. This means starting with those big one-product polluters: the bulky products that are not recycled today, like carpets, mattresses and furniture, where solutions already exist, or can be quickly developed. This could immediately save material value, in addition to energy savings.

It also means learning lessons from elsewhere in the world. In California, for example, where an initial attempt in 2010 to incentivise eco-design and recycling of carpets through a stewardship programme for manufacturers had limited success, legislation was needed in 2017 to create a mandatory recycling rate of 24% for postconsumer carpet by 2020.

To be successful, a European ecodesign framework must set requirements for the recyclability of products and waste management; encourage companies to design harmful chemicals out of their products; and ensure mandatory disclosure of materials used in everyday products to enable better waste management and to help consumers and industry make informed choices.

The European Union has made huge strides on tackling ecodesign and recyclability, but we can no longer afford to ignore the policy eyesore that is Europe’s needless waste mountain. Europe must act – sooner, rather than later by helping to accelerate the ecodesign revolution.

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