Furniture Recycling’s Catch-22: the Flame Retardant Industry’s Toxic Legacy

By |

jamie-croppedBack in the 1970s, California set regulations to ostensibly protect public health by establishing strict fire-resistance standards for most home and office furnishings. Due to the oversized nature of the California furniture market coupled with the consolidation of the national furniture industry, this regulation became a de facto standard across the US.

While preventing fires is a laudable goal, the standard essentially mandated the use of a highly-toxic class of chemicals known as brominated flame retardants (BFRs). The polyurethane foam contained in a majority of furniture was treated with these chemicals to prevent ignition. However, this foam is covered, generally by upholstery. That means that for the foam to be exposed to a flame, the upholstery will have already caught fire. Sadly, the flammability standards do not match this real world scenario. So, what is the point of having all of that chemical treatment?

Beyond the question of effectiveness, it turns out that these flame retardants pose a known threat to human health, and have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems, and impaired fertility. These chemicals have been found at astonishing levels in humans ever since these standards have been established, including the fact that infants in the US have among the highest concentrations in the world.

iStock_000049519504_MediumDespite knowing the risks of these chemicals, their manufacturers used a combination of deceit, obfuscation and the manipulation of science and public opinion, to sustain the California standard that all but mandated the use of BFRs in upholstered furniture for the US market. As a result, these chemical corporations have created a massive source of persistent, bio-accumulative toxic chemicals that will be pervasive in the environment and our bodies for generations to come.

For years, when California debated changing this standard – and when other states sought to restrict its use – a front group for the big three flame-retardant manufacturers (Albemarle, ICL, and Chemtura) called “Citizens for Fire Safety,” popped up to claim that such changes would put your home and family at risk. The potential that safety standards might change was a direct threat to their business model. Luckily for all of us, California did change its standard in 2013.

bulky waste clogging landfillsSo now standards have changed, but there is still a massive amount of furniture out there that will be discarded for the next half century. As has already been shown, the chemicals in these materials are not good for us, and we do not want them put back into use through reuse and recycling programs. That’s why furniture poses a particular concern to waste advocates whose mantra is reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reusing and recycling the toxic materials in the unwanted couches and upholstered chairs poses a hazard to human health, so what should we do?

As our dedicated readers know, UPSTREAM advocates for extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies, where product manufacturers are legally responsible for the environmental impacts of their products. Let’s outline an EPR program for furniture, including the segment that has been treated with chemical flame retardants. A starting point would be to have furniture companies finance and manage the infrastructure for collecting unwanted furniture from our homes, either on their own or in partnership with retailers and/or municipal governments.

There are two problems we are attempting to address through the EPR program. We have already discussed the health issues associated with flame retardants. The other issue is to stem the flow of furniture into landfills and incinerators and, instead, break it down into its component materials in order to recirculate those materials as recycled commodities. If we start with the premise that furniture manufacturers are going to be responsible for the program, the chemical industry, which created the health hazard is being let off the hook.

iStock_reduce-reuse-recoverHere is how we could envision a functioning EPR collection and processing system. Discarded furniture would be segregated into two categories: that which contains chemical flame retardants and that which does not. The chemical free material can be further broken down by material processors into component parts which can get sold back into the manufacturing process as recycled commodities (e.g. steel in springs, rigid plastics, textiles, and wood). The chemically-treated foam needs to be handled properly to destroy the harmful chemicals. Any process by which those chemicals might be reintroduced into the market must be avoided, as consumers would likely be unaware of the inclusion of recycled material in future products – e.g. carpet padding – that continues to pose a health threat to people.
This bifurcation of the waste stream poses another set of policy hurdles. Primarily, this is a dynamic material stream that is going to change as the market has already started to phase out chemical use in new products. Infrastructure investments now may not be appropriate for the material stream as it evolves. Right now, the focus needs to be on protecting human health by preventing chemical exposure. In a couple of decades, the primary goal will be to reuse and recycle materials in a circular economy model.

The crux of this question is whether we can develop an EPR system that encompasses both the furniture industry and, separately, the manufacturers of one of the component parts of the product – the flame retardant producers. This is different from existing EPR programs, which operate as a regulation of the brand-owners only. There are legal and practical reasons to modify existing thinking to allocate primary responsibility further up the manufacturing stream.

There are two, equally important, powers of a state at play. First and foremost is public safety. We expect our government to act to protect its people, including from harmful products. Second each state has the ability to regulate commercial transactions, and do so in order to correct market failures. EPR is a method whereby a materials collection and recycling system is created and paid for by material producers, because the free market has failed to do so. Thus, if that brand wants to sell in the state, they have to participate in the program. Practically, at least in theory, the brand has the ability to control the upstream manufacturing process such that the downstream material collection and recycling program can be optimized to create the circular flow of materials. That is how an EPR program should work.

Hooking chemical manufacturers for the cost of disposal of all the chemicals they have sold to us in our furniture becomes a difficult proposition, especially since we do not want the chemicals to re-enter the marketplace as a recycled product. However, states have wide latitude in both regulating manufacturing processes and for exercising its power to protect public safety. Should an EPR program be used to create financial responsibility for chemical companies, the example of the pharmaceutical industry’s failed legal challenge to local California ordinances provides some guidance. In that program, even though the medications were not manufactured in the cities and towns in which they were sold, those towns had the power to mandate a take-back program.

While EPR for non-chemically treated furniture would work well, we need to think outside of the EPR model to most efficiently get to chemical manufacturers. One creative idea is for a state to couple an EPR system with something akin to the Federal Super Fund program, paid for by the chemical industry, and used exclusively to eliminate the threat to human health of the flame retardants that they have put in the sofa, chair, and mattress that your family uses every day. Protecting its citizens from chemical exposure should be sufficient public safety and health ground on which a State could enact a program.

In evaluating this landscape, here is what UPSTREAM can say for certain. An EPR system for furniture is needed in the United States. Furniture manufacturers need to play in role in the collecting and processing of the products they are putting on the market. Additionally, the chemical industry needs to share in that responsibility because there is, if nothing else, a moral debt they have to pay to all Americans for profiting off the exposure of hundreds of millions of people to toxic chemicals. However, even if we accomplish all of that, we are left with a final problem, which flows from a successful program: What do we do with all of the chemically treated, hazardous material once it has been collected?

pollutionIt could be landfilled, and much of the furniture thrown away right now meets this fate. This allows hazardous chemicals to degrade in an unpredictable landfill environment, creating new harmful chemicals that will travel through our hydrological and ecological pathways. There such chemicals are likely to have a persistent negative impact on the environmental justice communities in which we have placed our nation’s landfills. It could be incinerated or used for fuel in the cement kilns across the country. Of course, burning flame retardants creates new hazardous chemicals such as dioxins and furans, to which environmental justice communities in which we have built these facilities will be exposed. These “practical” solutions that the free market has provided us are unacceptable. When the free market fails, we need our government to step in and demand that protecting public health and safety is not subject to a cost-benefit analysis.

An EPR system can only get us so far, as it is effective at creating collection systems and bolstering supply of recyclable materials. A strong and effective government acting to protect its citizenry is also required to act in the best interests of people over industry.

Share on Facebook6Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0