A group of scientists at the University of Birmingham is calling for soft furnishings to be discarded with the same caution as electronics. Waste from soft furnishings such as curtains, cushions and sofas contain brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which have been shown to damage the environment and human health.
In the United Kingdom, at least two thirds of electronic waste (e-waste) must be treated before it can enter landfill. However, the millions of tons of furniture and textile waste disposed of by UK households each year currently goes unregulated. Most of this waste ends up in landfill, while the rest is incinerated.
Scientists are worried this is adding to a soup of harmful chemicals which might eventually leach into groundwater, contaminating water supplies and spreading to the wider environment – BFRs already have been detected in water from landfill sites.
Extensive BFR contamination of air, water, and soils has been documented by several academic studies. Most people are exposed to the chemicals through dust in buildings and food. The chemicals harm the human endocrine system, responsible for regulating the amount of different hormones released into the bloodstream.
Many BFRs now are banned for use in new products throughout the European Union and North America. However, as recently as 2005, their total annual usage stood at around 311,000 tons and millions of tons have entered the market since the early 1990s.
A good portion of this already has ended up in landfill. To avoid further build-up of the chemicals, the scientists are calling for the remaining BFR-laden waste to be 'destroyed or managed in an environmentally sound manner.' They also emphasize the need to maintain and monitor landfill sites long after they've been closed.
Regulating soft furnishings in the same manner as e-waste also could prove a boon to business. Recognizing the 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste produced worldwide as a problem, scientists are turning to upcycling to reduce the amount ending up in landfill. For example, a team of Hong Kong researchers has found a way to use ground-up circuit boards from discarded cell phones, computers and other gadgets to absorb toxic heavy metals found in water.
Also, Dell has had an ongoing program, in partnership with Goodwill, called Dell Reconnect, which takes used computer equipment of any brand, working or not, and puts it back to good use or recycles it responsibly for free.
Regardless, the next time you decide to abandon that old couch at the dumps, think again.