Being a stratigrapher or not, there’s one stratum you have all trod upon if you ever went to the General Assembly (GA), without probably noticing it. The uppermost unit of EGU’s GA floor, a ca. 5 mm thick layer with a soft rubbery texture and peculiar light-grey colour, outcropping over the whole poster halls: Carpet! Yes, the focus of this post is the carpet draping the GA’s floor with its lifetime of 5 days and yearly recurrence.
We never thought about it, until we thought about it all the time. This brand new carpet, specially produced for our yearly geoscience event, 12.000 m2 (1), put here for 5 days of conference. And then what?
The growing queue on Friday evening to enter the conveners’ party is the perfect occasion to take a walk through the halls and observe the methodical deconstruction that happens during the whole night. And yes, carpet seems to be thrown away. After asking Copernicus (the company that organizes the EGU meetings, 2), which called the company taking care of mounting and taking care of the infrastructure, which explained that they employ another company for carpet disposal, it is uncertain what actually happens with this material.
Carpet waste in numbers
As far as we know, this process repeats every week for every meeting, and at most conference centers in the world. That sounds like a consequent amount of carpets… The topic has actually already attracted the attention of the “ZeroWaste” environmentalists, and there is a huge amount of information and references in their reports which we will not retranscript here (3, 4). Here is a brief summary in numbers:
-700 Mio. m2 of carpet were sold in 2016 in the EU, 11.7 Bn. m2 in the USA;
-1.6 Mio. tons of carpets are thrown away yearly in the EU;
-Without transparent information, the authors of the report “believe” that only 3% of this carpet is recycled (actually down-cycled);
-97% (= 1.552.000.000 kg) ends up in landfills or is incinerated;
-Some organisations claim that they recycle large parts of their carpets, however, in many countries, incinerating waste to collect heat is considered as recycling. The Cannes festival for example claims that they recycle 100% of their carpet (5), comparing numbers from the French website, it’s actually 16 tons out of 80 that come to recycling, which is barely 20%.
THAT’S OUTRAGING, SOMETHING HAS TO BE DONE!
We, the EGU community, can change the norm
We truly believe in EGU, we truly believe in our good intentions, we embrace EGU’s motto that “we are a bottom-up organization”, that our Early-Career-Scientists (ECS) are given a special place and voice, and that we all agree that wasting carpet makes no sense. We really see that EGU can become an environmentally-friendly meeting that will find a solution and become a model for recycling conference carpet. EGU already offers reduced train fares for their participants, the possibility to compensate carbon emissions, they made an effort on reusable water-skins. This carpet challenge is only the reachable next step!
We thought about it for the case of the GA, and well, there are a few constrains that cannot be tackled easily:
–Noise reduction: In a hall containing 15.000 geoscientists hydrating themselves with free beers, the sound volume increases rapidly, and carpets might be useful to reduce resonance (although this should really be measured);
–Flexibility: The event industry should be able to transform the space for its need, so that swarms of different holes in the carpets will be created for each occasion. Thus consequent parts of a carpet floor still need to be changed on each occasion;
–Cleanliness: Carpets can become dirty very fast, especially with free red wine. It is not sure that chemical cleaning products would be better for the environment than recycling carpets;
–Industry: There is a strong “event-carpet” market. Forcing the re-use of products would have a negative impact on it, and it is often wise to find a solution together with the industry.
Under these conditions, it seems that single-use carpet remains the easiest solution for a while. Other solutions would imply consequent re-structuration of the halls for noise reduction, force a fixed exhibition format to the event industry, and disturb a well-established market. This could confront us with more opponents than supporters.
The Austria Center of Vienna (ACV, the building hosting EGU, 1) is neither in charge of carpet, nor of waste management, yet they provide containers for disposal. This is somehow a good news, since it means that Copernicus has the full freedom to decide what happens with the waste of EGU.
A recyclable design, that gets recycled
The current dominant carpeting is manufactured with multiple layers (the face fiber i.e. what we see, and several backing layers, where the fibers connect to) made of different types of material (nylon, polypropylene, PET, PVC, latex) that are glued together and really hard to separate. This sandwiched mixture is thus, in its design, near impossible to recycle. But solutions exist for almost 100% recyclable carpets.
Now come the subtle differences of the green washing vocabulary. It’s not because something is recyclable that it is created with recycled material, and unless they are collected and sent to a recycling platform, recyclable materials won’t recycle themselves.
There’s also a consequent difference between “down-cycling”, i.e. recycling into a product of lesser quality and real “closed-loop” recycling, whereby a carpet is recycled as… a carpet.
Finally, many claim to “recover” their waste without further explanation. It usually means that the waste is burnt to produce heat (energy recovery). -Germany, the European leader in recycling claims to recycle 65% of its total waste. Actually they collect 65% of their waste in a sorted fashion, but 35% of it is actually incinerated for “energy recovery” (6). There seem to have been a law proposal in the EU to exclude burning from the numbers, but guess who voted against? Germany did, but we’re going off topic here.-
The commonly used “partially” recyclable carpet costs about: 1.20 Eur/m2 for an area of the size of the AVC halls (12.000 m2), according to quotes by French carpet company “Beaulieu”. This is a cost of around 14.400 Eur for one of our GA. The cost for a 100% recyclable carpet floor would be only 0.2 Eur/m2 higher, adding a total extra-charge of 2400 Eur). Using carpets 100% recyclable would thus induce an over-cost of less than 0.16 Eur per participant in the GA. Who would disagree?
There is another large meeting hosted by ACV, the “European Radiology Congress” (>20.000 participants, 7), which took care of their carpet problem. They are provided by the company Alma, which produces the “Kenafloor” (8), a needlefelt carpet made of kenaf (9) and 100% biodegradable, as well as the “Alma Green” a carpet 100% recyclable …into carpet (10). And the waste management company of the European Radiology congress confirmed that all carpets ends up in a recycling chain. One step further, the European Radiology Congress is also organized as a “green meeting” (11). This is a Austrian certificate that a meeting can reach by accomplishing some environmentally friendly points, and the ACV Vienna is habilitated to deliver it. The ACV even provide assistance to reach as many points as possible.
So in conclusion, solutions and working examples exist. We’d love that our whole EGU community, members, Program Committee, ECS representatives, the Copernicus office, and the ACV work together to walk on sustainable carpets for the next GA. And why not target in the same time to reach the “green meeting” standards?
Guilhem Amin Douillet & Vanille Ritz
(1) The website of the Austria Vienna Center states that they have 22.000m2 of space, 12.000 of them for the four exhibition halls (https://www.acv.at/planen/raeume/index.html?0)
(2) Copernicus is the society that organizes the EGU meeting, as well as became an ethical open access publisher, and offers its service for organization to other meetings. https://www.copernicus.org/