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Mix Roundtable: Designing out waste

While the subject of waste management (and the wider sustainability issue) remains a hot topic, despite a global pandemic, is the industry really doing enough – or is it merely a box ticking issue?

28/07/2021 8 min read
Ege Carpets

Every manufacturer’s website will have a section relating to sustainability, waste management and, indeed, will show the certifications achieved. But what do these certifications really mean?

Do specifiers have a duty (and do they have the time and resources) to delve deeper into the subject? Are manufacturers doing enough to combat waste management – and where does/should the ‘line of duty’ fall? Together with our sponsor, Ege Carpets, we’ve not only gathered a crack team of industry experts at the flooring specialist’s beautiful Clerkenwell showroom to discuss the subject, we’ve even invited – for the very first time – a safely and socially distanced audience to listen in.

We start by asking our ‘resident’ specialist on all things waste management about his own role and expertise.

Adnan: I manage and run Carpet Recycling UK. Although we’ve got recycling in our name, we are not a recycling company – we are a membership organisation. I also work in the waste industry as a consultant, with about 20 years’ experience in the sector. We’re here to help and support our members – of which Ege is one of our core funders – and to help them promote their sustainable ideas, designs and products and, of course, help them divert as much waste into reuse and recycling applications and away from landfill.

While we have Adnan in full flow, we ask him to give us his views on where the industry is now at in terms of waste management and recycling – and, in particular, about the terminology used today.

Adnan: The terminology is definitely developing – not only from the carpet manufacturing side but also from the waste industry side. Landfill diversion was the key topic in the 1990s-2000s. It was all about diverting material from landfill – that’s where we really started. Then we were introduced to recycling. We received all these bins at home, we quickly got confused – and we’re still confused today! But it is developing. What we would class as straightforward recycling is actually now being classed as downcycling. What we are now seeing is more and more terminology coming in to replace recycling, which is being replaced by the Circular Economy.

For me, in practical terms, the vital thing here is that you can get another life out of a product as opposed to the alternative – which is that it’s going to be buried into the ground. This isn’t necessarily easy, but it is progressive. We’ve been pushing ahead as a sector for a long time, but – because it’s waste – it’s someone else’s problem. The duty of care has to remain with everyone within the supply chain. It’s a continued responsibility.

Lewis: I do think that we, as designers, do have a huge responsibility here, but ultimately it does come back to the manufacturer. If a manufacturer does not create a product that can be part of a circular economy, then how are we expected to implement and push it? There needs to be a good enough range of products out there, which can be reused.

Josie: Ultimately, we have a responsibility to choose which manufacturers we use – we don’t have to use a manufacturer that doesn’t take the circular economy seriously.

Adnan: The first question we have to ask is about prevention; prevention is the best solution to it all. It’s the first thing we should be looking at. Therefore, there is a responsibility on manufacturers to produce products with recycling in mind – however, this should be part of everyone’s journey and if everyone buys into this concept then it soon feeds its way down.

Richard: We do, as manufacturers, have a responsibility. As Adnan says, every stakeholder has a duty – client, specifier, manufacturer, contractor, and at every step of the process. Specifiers are in a strong position as they have scope to influence and educate their clients, but is the client willing?

At Ege, sustainability and the environment is something we have been focused on for over 20 years and we have worked towards numerous certifications and standards, but for us as a business I would say Cradle to Cradle is the most important and underscores our targets and ambitions for the next 10 years. Whilst all that we manufacture currently achieves a minimum of Cradle to Cradle Bronze, our next goal is for ALL carpets to achieve Cradle to Cradle Gold by 2025 and Platinum in 2030. Unlike others, we do not believe in cherry picking one or two products to give consumers a ‘sustainable option’ – for us it really is all or nothing.

Paul: We all have a responsibility here – and we all have the ability to take on the onus and take on that responsibility. My job is to understand all the things that people like Adnan tell us – that I’d never heard up until five minutes ago – and to understand them, and then tell my team about it, and then tell my clients, and then my clients tell their staff…so that responsibility is spread across all of us. My daughter, who is seven years old, is now telling me things about the earth – she’s educating me and already sharing that responsibility with me. I work for a company who works incredibly hard (and pushes manufacturers incredibly hard) to only offer our designers things that are pleasant to the earth, as much as they can be. If they are not, we will not offer them to our clients.

Josie: We actually ban stuff from our library now, to ensure that we’re only presenting the ‘right’ products to our clients.

So how do specifiers navigate this often-tricky path?

Josie: Sometimes you have conversations where the manufacturer will ask us what it is we are looking for in a product, and they will then try to develop that because they do need to make sales.

Lewis: It actually makes the company more attractive to us – because we then know that they naturally want to develop these products. We, as designers, might not have the time and resources to fully concentrate on this, but we do have sustainability teams who do that for us.

The sustainability team at tp bennett will send out a really detailed questionnaire, and if they don’t fill that out, then they won’t get on the list. If they do, then they go into a traffic light system.

Magda: We have tried to create our own rating system because there are so many certifications and it can be extremely confusing. There is so much to consider in every product – from VOCs to recycled content – but also where they come from and emissions. It is a difficult thing, and it does take time.

Josie: We’ve done something similar. The way we boiled it down is that it feels to us that carbon is the best thing to measure in terms of overall output. You do find companies who tell you their products are all-natural, but then you look at where they are shipped from! Some products are made in India, shipped to America and then shipped back to Europe – the carbon footprint of that far exceeds whether it is a recycled product.

Lewis: This matters to our clients – a lot of them are investing an awful lot into this and really pushing it. They need to know whether the products we’re putting forward are going to get them their credits – and that’s a really nice thing because I have worked on projects where the client doesn’t care. Like we said earlier, we all have responsibility here.

Paul: When I started designing, there wasn’t a system at all – it’s good that there now is a system. In fact, there are probably four that you can choose from – and some are better than others. But it is nice to see that there is care out there – it’s definitely getting better and better.

Ashley: The certifications definitely help because they hold people accountable for the products they put forward. These have pushed manufacturers to think about what they put into their products. They know they’re not going to get put forward onto projects if they don’t do this.

So it can be tricky for the specifier, but what about the manufacturer?

Richard: As a manufacturer it is easier to control/influence sustainability upstream, but downstream, after supply, is where the challenges lie, especially end of life with waste disposal. A key part is what we use in our products and a carpet can contain hundreds of elements and we are working to switch them both to recycled and recyclable – for example, our Ecotrust tile backing is from 100% plastic bottle waste (PET), unlike a conventional bitumen back using bitumen, fillers, PVC and fiber glass that can be impossible to separate. The Holy Grail is a single polymer carpet, where it is made of one material and thus requires no separation.

In terms of downstream influence, there are ideas to explore – such as product leasing or a deposit system where the manufacturer is more involved later in the product’s life, but this would be a fundamental shift from the industry norm here in the UK.

Speaking of the UK, where do we sit in the global table when it comes to a responsible, sustainable approach?

Magda: It’s quite difficult to judge because there are different certifications and there are different attitudes. I would say that we do speak so much more about the subject in the UK – it is still a really hot topic. When it comes to working with clients overseas, there is certainly more educating necessary! Also, there was a certain degree of education for me because in places such as Saudi Arabia there are a lot of great materials you can specify that I’m not used to putting into my designs! So there was definitely learning on both sides.

Ashley: Government legislation can definitely help. If you look at the US – in California, for example, there are really strict regulations and everybody knows that and if you are designing in California you simply have to meet those regulations. Other states will then look to meet those standards. It also depends on the sector – I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a hotel project where the client was particularly interested in sustainability. I had one restaurant client who was really into it and one football operations facility in South Carolina who wasn’t interested at all. There is much more interest in offices – but it really does depend on the place and the sector.

Adnan: Carpet Recycling UK was actually formed on the back of a model from California – and they are so strict because of the regulation. I think there’s an assumption here in the UK that we’re behind the curve – but that’s not necessarily true. We are doing some great stuff. We could be doing even more, but there’s a definite step in the right direction – and that’s only going to move on with future generations.

Josie: But we definitely can’t rest on our laurels. We do need to do a lot more – just because we’re doing better than other countries, it doesn’t mean we can start sitting back.

Richard: Here in the UK, we are fortunate to be a leader in respect of diverting carpets from landfill, a large part of this is thanks to CRUK – something Ege is proud to be a partner and founding member of.

Adnan: Although the carpet sector is making great strides moving forward with its design for recycling concepts initiatives and products, it is through you good people – the designers and architects – to help push the story forward to provide such alternative products to your clients. Only then will I get my hands on the waste that is generated…okay, I may have to wait a little bit.

Conclusion

It is not just the carpet industry that is making strides forward – there is now a general acknowledgement throughout the sector (and beyond) that we must do more when it comes to waste management and the wider sustainable picture. After all, we are today’s custodians of this planet and we have a collective responsibility for future generations – as individuals and as organisations, whether that is as client, specifier, manufacturer, contractor, trade body or government. What is certain is that this ‘trend’ is not going anywhere – in fact, it will continue to be at the forefront of thinking as new generations of makers and designers take over.

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