Task-specific plastics in buildings and machines live longer than consumer plastics in packaging – but also lag behind in recycling rates. The leading producer Tarkett is fighting to turn things around.

”Tarkett is working to establish a circular economy, and recycling of old flooring is an essential component. The task at hand differs from one market to another. The Nordic countries is at the forefront”, says Dag Duberg, Nordic Sustainability Manager at Tarkett.

Six million square meters of plastic flooring is installed every year, in Sweden alone. Tarkett strives for a circular material system, which would save large amounts of resources and reduce emissions from incineration and landfills. Photo: Tarkett.

The Tarkett group is one of the leading flooring manufacturers, and the leader in plastic flooring, selling the equivalent of 240 football pitches every day. The product is perfectly compatible with a sustainable materials system, according to Tarkett:

”The greatest strenght of plastic floors is their performance”, Dag Duberg explains. ”They are durable, withstand water, and can be used in complex installations. They are economically and environmentally efficient to maintain, and repair, material recycling and energy recycling are all viable options. Since they are artificial products, they have the opportunity to benefit from the development of new technology”.

Tarkett tries to make use of recycled material wherever possible. Some textile flooring is made from nylon recovered from fishing nets and plastic film from old car windows. Medical packaging is recycled as plastic flooring. Offcuts and scrap from the company’s own production is circulated, and the product portfolio contains more and more recycled plastics: the vinyl floor iD Inspiration consists of 52 percent recycled material, the waterproofing sheet TarkoDry has 85 percent. But recycling the actual flooring when it is disposed turns out to be more complicated.

Long-life plastics: often overlooked

Plastic products can broadly be divided in two groups. One is consumer plastics with short lifecycles, found in packaging, disposable items and carrier bags. This category has a littering problem, too often ending up in nature and accumulating in the ocean as microplastics; since littering is so visible, this issue has come to dominate the debate.

The other one is task-specific plastics with long lifecycles, used in building materials, industrial applications and vehicle components. This is a material flow that has been overshadowed by the first one: pipes and cables are less visible than bags, vinyl floors aren’t removed and thrown in the ocean. But longlife plastics is a very important matter in terms of resource management, and they are a technological challenge to recycle:

”There are no technologically or logistically functioning methods to recycle the materials in old floors on a broad scale today. A lack of incentives is one part of the reason. Under-developed infrastructure is another. There are also technological obstacles”, Dag Duberg explains.

Chemicals and additives change over time

The Tarkett flooring at Bromma Airport was installed in 1952. It illustrates the double-edged sword of task-specific plastics: the material is robust enough to fulfill its purpose for 66 years straight – but on the other hand, it places the burden on circular material systems to take such lifespans into account. Photo: Tarkett.

One thing that has to be considered carefully is the chemistry. Short-life plastics is still a familiar raw material after one cycle cradle-to-cradle; with a plastic floor, you probably aren’t even sure what it contains. In the departure lounge at Bromma Airport, the Tarkett installation of vinyl flooring is still intact since 1952. Few floors stay in place that long, but the average plastic floor in Sweden remains in use for 20 years, according to an assessment by Tarkett and IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute. In that lifespan, both the understanding of chemicals and the regulations that govern their use may change a lot.

”We have to be humble enough to acknowledge that we are still learning more about how chemicals affect our health and the environment”, Dag Duberg says. He underlines that all long-life products share a conflict of aims between chemical hazards and resource management:

”Consider the 500 000 tonnes of plastic carpets we have in Sweden today. Much of this material is riddled with plasticisers that we are not authorized to use today, and some of them have been outright banned. We have to decide how to handle that. Are there alternative applications for these materials, where the environmental benefit of resource recycling trumps the risk for exposure?”

Tarkett presented their first ftalate-free PVC flooring in 2009, using renewable castor oil as plasticiser. By 2011, no ftalates at all were used in Ronneby, and the rest of the group’s production facilities followed suit in 2014.

One million tonnes of carbon dioxide to save

In lack of working recycling, the used floors in Sweden are incinerated. The same goes for other long-life plastics. Metals are more or less the only building material that is material recycled today. According to a recent report, the incineration of plastics alone costs the country nine billion SEK per year in lost value; in other countries, where most of the waste is sent to landfill, the situation is even worse.

”Our waste incineration is a well-developed system, and the energy is utilized in district heating. But the incineration of plastic flooring is a waste of resources that has to be stopped”, Dag Duberg says. He remarks that the practice essentially is the same as burning fossil fuels:

”Every year, six million square meters of plastic flooring is installed in Sweden. There are 150 million square meters in Swedish buildings already. That is almost half a million tonnes of material. If that plastic could be recycled, we would save approximately one million tonnes of carbon dioxide.”

The scraps can be recycled

When a plastic floor is installed, ten percent of the material is lost as scraps. Tarkett opened the first and only recycling facility in the Nordic countries for floor scrap pieces in 1996. It recycles 400 tonnes annually, 75 percent of which is used as raw material for new flooring. But much more could be recycled. Photo: Tarkett.

When a plastic floor is installed, about ten percent of the material is lost as scraps when it is cut to fit the floor. Compared to used flooring, installation scraps are more readily recovered. At the Tarkett facility in Ronneby, scraps from the entire Swedish flooring industry has been received and recycled since 1999. Similar recovery systems are being developed in France, England and Germany: the carpenters put their scraps in bags that are sent to Tarkett’s recycling center. The material is then sorted and processed to become new flooring:

”Heterogenous plastic flooring is cut and sent to Luxembourg, where it is used as the backside of our heterogenous flooring. In Ronneby,  colored plastic granules are pressed into homogenous flooring. We adjust the recipies depending on the amount and color of the recycled material at hand”, Dag Duberg says.

The facility recycles 400 tonnes annually, but much of the waste never goes there: if all of the scrap was collected, five or six times as much could be recycled.

Contributions to the circular economy

In May 2018, Tarkett suggested a number of political measures to overcome the lack of recycling: prohibit incineration of used plastic flooring, add procurement rules to enforce scrap collection, and initiate research on recycling methods for long-life plastics.

”We want to serve as a good example, but we are also trying to push the authorities and others in the right direction. To achieve a circular economy, laws, regulation and attitudes have to change, too”, says Dag Duberg:

”What we can do is to make sure that our products are recyclable, for instance by making sure that we don’t include chemicals that could cause damage; that we can use our own products as raw materials in our processes; and that they can be easily removed from their installations. That is all a natural part of our product development process”.

The transition ultimately depends on increased demand for recycled products, according to Duberg – and he believes that demand may have to be stimulated:

”The industry has the ability to develop technology and products for the circular economy, but without demand, there are no incentives to make the investments. If that demand could be generated by public procurement, for instance, it would go a long way.”

The suggestions have stirred up some interest, but whichever way that pendulum swings, Dag Duberg sees a steady course for Tarkett:

”It is essential for us – as a company, as colleagues, individuals and members of society – that our civilization makes this transition. The group has been dedicated to the circular economy since 2011, contributing systematically. We have made some progress, but we still have a long way to go”.

The article was published in October 2018.