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Take Action Now to Reduce Building Carbon Emissions

Jan. 6, 2020

The building and construction industry stands as the world’s single largest emitter of carbon emissions when accounting for both operational and embodied carbon. Address emissions in the built environment by specifying products with recycled materials that can be recycled at end of life.

The building and construction industry stands as the world’s single largest emitter of carbon emissions when accounting for both operational and embodied carbon, according to the Global Status Report 2017. Both manufacturers and specifiers have tremendous opportunity to reduce carbon emissions in our built spaces and, in turn, address global warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) special report Global Warming of 1.5ºC details the significant carbon emissions impacts from the built environment sector, prompting calls from the World Green Building Council and others to decarbonize the entire building and construction supply chain by 2050.

Changes are required across the entire supply chain to meet this goal. And, as the industry determines how to address carbon emissions in the built environment, the solutions must include both operational carbon and embodied carbon—the emissions associated with the production, transportation and disposal of building materials, such as flooring and carpets.

This won’t be an easy change, but policy mechanisms, new tools and increasing awareness are leading the building and construction industry to embrace this challenge. With a stronger focus on creation of new recycling programs for building materials and strengthening existing programs, like the State of California’s carpet recycling law, we can contribute to decarbonizing the building and construction supply chain.

Solution to Carbon Emissions Problem

Despite significant efforts, buildings-related emissions are on track to double by 2050. New buildings must be highly efficient and draw energy from renewable sources, helping to reduce their operational carbon emissions. But almost half of the carbon in a building comes from another source, the embodied carbon emissions associated with interiors products—and the processes of making those building and interior materials.

Address emissions in the built environment by specifying products with recycled materials that can be recycled at end of life. More than 4 billion pounds of carpet end up in landfills annually, so flooring specifiers can play a significant role in helping to reduce carbon emissions associated with the manufacturing of carpet by advocating for and driving an increase in carpet recycling rates.

Additionally, specifying products with a low carbon footprint is easier than ever with the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) tool. This free, open-access resource allows architects, owners, interior designer, construction companies and policymakers to easily evaluate and compare the carbon footprints of a variety of building products.

The Circular Economy’s Role in Decarbonization

Products and materials that end up in landfills waste the energy and resources taken to manufacture the product. We need more recycled content in our material stream, so we can continue to reduce the amount of virgin raw materials in our products. This will have a positive impact on embodied carbon emissions and the environment as a whole.

Incorporating bio-based and recycled content in products lowers the carbon footprint of a product and does more than simply divert waste materials from the landfill. By replacing virgin materials in their products, manufacturers can reduce energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and the extraction of finite resources from the Earth.

For example, recycled plastic (e.g. nylon in carpet) could reduce climate impact more than some other recycled materials (e.g. limestone), since virgin nylon is more energy intensive to produce.

Further, using post-consumer recycled content, or recycled content from used carpet tiles or other used products at the end of their life, closes the loop by giving those materials new life.

State Governments Roles in Carpet Recycling

Recognizing the vale to the state and its environment, 10 years ago, California led the U.S. in creating the country’s first mandatory carpet recycling program. The state and stakeholders have worked since to continuously strengthen the program, ensuring effective carpet recycling across California.

In October, California’s governor signed Assembly Bill No. 729, which further supports the state’s recycling program.

This new law furthers California’s recycling program by:

1. Safeguarding recycling program fees. Program fees are returned to the state if there is an organizational shift, allowing the California recycling program to remain stable and ensure certain types of carpets are supported for recycling. A supported program means less in landfills.

2. Ensuring a more circular economy in California. By minimizing waste and making the most of resources, businesses are encouraged to innovate. 

While California is the only state with a law supporting carpet recycling today, their program and lessons learned provide a valuable template for other jurisdictions considering similar programs. As it stands, a few states have similar legislation proposed.

A Call to Action

It’s important to specify carpet that not only includes recycled content, but also can be taken back and recycled at end of life. You can make a difference by:

  • Including post-consumer recycled content requirements in purchasing criteria.
  • Asking critical questions of carpet manufacturers to ensure they have active recycling programs.
  • Asking for details on what happens after products are collected for take back.
  • Encouraging more carpet recycling whenever there’s an opportunity to do so—raising it with customers on refurbishment projects and talking about it with general contractors.

With the increase of Extended Producer Responsibility legislation in several states, combined with the important lessons learned in California, we now need to increase the awareness and action of those involved in specifying products in the built environment. As these new policy approaches emerge, we must take similar action through better purchasing criteria and specification to further recycling on all fronts.

Now, it’s time to work together to make a circular economy a reality across the world.

About Erin Meezan:
As chief sustainability officer at Interface, Erin Meezan leads a global team that provides technical assistance and support to the company’s global business, addressing sustainability at all levels—from operations and management, to employees and customers, and in policy forums.

Meezan and her team are also responsible for developing industry-leading approaches to measurement, driving transparency and innovation in the field of sustainability.

Connect with Meezan on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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