OPED: The Waste and Health Problem Under New Yorkers' Feet

The following OPED was published on February 21, 2019 in Crain's New York BusinessIt was written by Kate Kurera, deputy director at Environmental Advocates of New York.

The waste and health problem under New Yorkers' feet

Toxic carpets deter recycling, but lawmakers can fix that

Carpet is not something New Yorkers think twice about. We put it in our homes and schools without stopping to consider what carpet is made of and how we dispose of it.

Much of the carpet today is made of petroleum-based plastics and other synthetics (dyes, adhesives and stain protectants), which can contain an extraordinary range of chemicals. The Changing Markets Foundation analyzed12 samples from the nation's six largest carpet manufacturers and found that all had at least one toxic chemical and many contained two or more. Some, such as PFAS and phthalates, present a range of serious health risks, including reproductive disorders and even cancer.

The toxic makeup of carpets compounds the solid-waste crisis. Though exacerbated by China's recent refusal to accept American plastic waste, it is a result of our "throw it away" culture.

Roughly 4 billion pounds of carpet enter the U.S. waste stream yearly. Less than 1% of that is recycled into new carpet; the majority is buried or burned. In New York, carpet accounts for 1.4% of solid waste. Burning carpets laden with chemicals can release toxic emissions, and it leaves behind hazardous incinerator ash, which is dumped in a landfill or recycled into building materials, such as concrete.

Circular economy

So how do we shift this trash paradigm? The Changing Markets report advocates for ending the status quo of make, use and dispose with a "circular economy" in which everything is used as long as possible, then regenerated or recycled—reducing the use of fossil fuels and other resources. Carpet, for one, would be designed and produced with reuse and recycling in mind—that is, without toxic substances.

California already has enacted extended producer responsibility schemes, which hold manufacturers accountable for their products. Such programs ensure producers take responsibility for the costs created by their products after consumers finish using them. This includes postconsumer disposal and recycling, which today are paid for by consumers through taxes and garbage-collection rates.

New research by Eunomia Research & Consulting details options to dramatically improve carpet recycling and reuse rates using this system. These include incentivizing the use of products that are more easily reusable and recyclable and toxic-free, as well as shifting the cost burden of disposal and recycling from taxpayers and municipalities to producers.

New York has a history and a head start with extended producer responsibility plans. Last year a law was passed that requires drug manufacturers to operate a take-back program to accept and dispose of covered medications. Now state Sen. Brian Kavanagh has introduced legislation that would require carpet manufacturers to coordinate with wholesalers, retailers and installers to recycle old carpet.

Beyond pharmaceuticals and carpets, producer responsibility systems could be used with a variety of consumer goods—paint, tires and electronics, to name a few. By embracing this philosophy, New York could become a worldwide leader in tackling our growing waste problem. 

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