Materials Optimization Starts at the Intersection of Human Health and Recycling

Wes Sullens | April 29, 2015 | Materials

Post-Consumer PVC Report cover imageOn Earth Day my organization (StopWaste) and the Healthy Building Network published the first in a series of in-depth studies of common feedstocks found in many recycled content building products: Post-Consumer Polyvinyl Chloride in Building Products. These reports are part of a new initiative we have undertaken along with the San Francisco Department of the Environment to identify options for enhancing recycled content value, fostering longer material reuse cycles, and improving environmental and human health.

It can be a challenge to square two important goals: 1) increase recycling, and 2) protect human health and the environment, given the amount of toxic chemicals currently in some recycled feedstocks. However, it also presents a great opportunity as evidence shows that cleaning up recycled feedstocks increases industry interest in those feedstocks and ultimately increases their diversion from landfills and incinerators. Our case study of recycled polyvinyl chloride (PVC, or “vinyl”) is a good place to start this discussion since some vinyl flooring manufacturers are taking positive steps to optimize their recycled content products.

As our report reveals, recycled PVC feedstocks used in flooring, especially low-cost retail floors, can come from discarded electronics, cables/wires, and other sources that contain high amounts of contaminants like heavy metals. But three leading flooring companies are trying to ensure those old legacy additives are not reintroduced into their new flooring products. They are taking steps to source their recycled content responsibly, and are limiting the inclusion of additives that are known hazards and that could lower the future recyclability of their products.

PVC resilient flooring manufacturer Armstrong has diverted over six million pounds of post consumer flooring since 2009 through its flooring reclamation program. It only uses flooring waste for its recycled PVC content, and has internal limits on the allowable levels of heavy metals and phthalates.

Interface uses only recovered carpet tile backing for its recycled PVC content.  “We’ve tested over one hundred other sources [besides post-consumer PVC carpet backing], but the additives are all over the map,” said Mikhail Davis, Interface’s director of Restorative Enterprise. “Focusing on carpet tile waste makes the screening challenge manageable because we are familiar with the ingredients and how to manage them safely.”

Possibly the most significant challenge for vinyl flooring recyclers are the phthalate plasticizers, which, until very recently, many flooring manufacturers have been routinely adding in large quantities. Fortunately, the era of using phthalates in flooring may be coming to an end because leading retailers like Home Depot have committed to phase-out phthalates from all their vinyl flooring.

Tarkett has already phased-out the use of virgin phthalates in their flooring and has almost entirely stopped sourcing post-consumer PVC.[1] In the future, as phthalate-free PVC flooring products reach their end of use, Tarkett is ready to reclaim and then incorporate these reformulated floors into new products. While this practice may lower their short-term recycled content percentages in certain products, Tarkett has adopted a corporate-wide “circular economy” directive that will utilize tomorrow’s reclaimed floors for its feedstock of the future.

For more on what these leading manufacturers are doing to improve their recycled content feedstock value, see our report.

In these actions taken by forward-thinking manufacturers, we see the kernel of an exciting new movement to optimize recycled content.  This represents a maturing closed-loop between consumers, retailers and manufacturers that places human and environmental health at the center of the equation.  In the coming weeks, look for more in-depth investigations from our exploration into optimizing recycled content feedstocks.

Wes Sullens is a Green Building Program Manager for the Northern California local government agency StopWaste. Wes works on regional energy and green building codes & standards development; recycling and materials management programs & standards; and green building policy. He is currently Chair of the LEED Materials & Resources Technical Advisory Group for the USGBC, and is a member of several committees for green codes and standards including ASHRAE 189.1, Cradle 2 Cradle v4, ULe Standard 2799 for Zero Waste, and the GreenPoint Rated program in California.


[1] In order to ensure that new floors contain no more than 0.1% phthalates, Tarkett’s only sourcing of post-consumer PVC comes from vinyl composition tile floors in the U.S. that contain relatively low levels of these plasticizers.  According to Dr. Feliks Bezati, Tarkett’s Environmental Responsibility Manager, “VCT is a product containing 85% by weight filler and 1-3% by weight phthalates. We have tested the final phthalate contamination in our VCT product and the value is below 1000 ppm, the number EPA uses as acceptable for mouthing toys and food contact. Based on this value of contamination we have decided to collect post-use VCT instead of landfilling,” he said.