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Closing The Carpet Loop

Increased consumer awareness and availability of quality feedstock will grow the demand for products made from recycled carpet.

Edwin Colyer

Interface supplied carpet tiles made from recycled materials for interior and exterior walls of the Lucy House - part of the Rural Studio Project Photography courtesy of Timothy Hursley.

W e all like the feel of soft carpet under our feet. It is a feeling of comfort, warmth and luxury. But next time you rip up your old rugs to lay down new carpet, spare a thought for the fate of your old floor covering.

Most used carpet ends up in a landfill. While it represents less than 3 percent of the overall volume of waste landfilled each year, more than 4.5 billion pounds of carpet were discarded in the United States in 2004, according to estimates from the Dalton, Ga.-based Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI).

Given the growing scarcity of landfill space and the acceptance that recycling and sustainable manufacturing processes can actually make business as well as environmental sense, a large number of carpet manufacturers signed a Memorandum of Understanding for Carpet Stewardship (MOU) in 2002. Its main goal is lofty a landfill diversion rate of 40 percent by 2012. This target is viewed as a step towards a long-term commitment by the carpet industry for the eventual elimination of not only disposal in a landfill, but also incineration and incineration with energy recovery (waste-to-energy) of waste carpet.

So how is the effort shaping up? It certainly got off to a bad start when, in 2002, Evergreen Nylon Recycling LLC - a joint venture between DSM Chemicals North America Inc., Augusta, Ga., and Honeywell International Inc., Morris Township, N.J. - closed its carpet recycling facility in Augusta. This closure was followed by the bankruptcy of the Germany-based Polyamid 2000 plant in 2003.

These plants used the latest technologies to recycle the nylon content of old carpets. Evergreen used selective pyrolysis to produce caprolactam from nylon 6 carpet fibers. Caprolactam is the main chemical building block of nylon 6, so Evergreen's process offered closed-loop recycling for nylon 6 carpets. Polyamid 2000 was able to recycle nylon 6,6 carpets using a proprietary process. Energy was recovered from the non-recyclable, organic portion and used to power the plant.

But the economics just didn't add up, as several European research projects could have predicted. According to Edmund Vankann, managing director of GUT - a Germany-based consortium of European carpet manufacturers focused on promoting environmentally friendly practices - polyamide 6 is the only polymer that can be recycled into a product of real economic value. Theoretical research shows only about 4.5 percent of an incoming carpet waste stream in Europe is polyamide 6 - about half the amount necessary to make the process worthwhile financially. Unsurprisingly, by 2004, nylon carpet recycling was almost non-existent.

Nevertheless, Bob Peoples, director of sustainability, CRI; and executive director, Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), an affiliate of CRI, remains upbeat. "This is not a dying but nascent industry, but the timing in the economic cycle is not right. Still, what has become clear to me over the past few years is that the free enterprise approach is the right way to solve this challenging problem and that, ultimately, society must bear the cost of sustainability."

Recycling Initiatives

Carpet manufacturers are leading the way with recycling initiatives. INVISTA Inc., Wilmington, Del., operates the oldest planned carpet recycling program, accepting carpet regardless of fiber type, manufacturer or backing type. Post-consumer carpet products recycled include carpet cushion, automotive parts, natural turf-based roofing tiles, furniture, pallets, filtration pipes and boards.

Some companies such as Interface Inc., Atlanta; and Milliken Carpet, LaGrange, Ga. have reuse programs. They take back old carpet tiles, and clean and refurbish them, even adding new color and patterns. But reuse accounts for only a tiny portion of carpet diverted from landfills. "While reuse provides an interesting story, reuse will never offer significant diversion of carpet from disposal," said Dobbin Callahan, general manager, government markets, Tandus US Inc., parent company of a number of floor covering businesses, including Dalton, Ga.-based Collins & Aikman Floorcoverings Inc. (C & A). "I think it is fair to say that reuse by all companies involved does not account for one-tenth as much recycling as we alone are doing!"

Recycling of material is much more important, and most carpet manufacturers now include recycled content in their carpet ranges, especially in the backing polymers. C & A takes polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-backed carpet and recycles it into backing for new carpet.

Shaw Industry's A Walk In The Garden Collection of carpet tile, which contains Ecoworx® polyethylene carpet backing, is designed for convenient recycling.

"We take the old material, chop and grind it, pulverize it and pelletize it and then extrude it to produce new, 100-percent recycled-content backings," Callahan said. "We are recycling 10 million pounds of carpet per year this way. PVC recycling is economically viable for sure. Today, it is cheaper for us to make a tile with recycled PVC than to use virgin material."

Manufacturers also are beginning to consider recycling in the design of their carpets. Dalton, Ga.-based Shaw Industry Inc.'s EcoWorx® polyethylene backing - just one end product created from its many recycling and sustainability efforts - is designed specifically for easy recycling. The company also has a cradle-to-cradle design protocol to assess each individual material used in a product to determine whether it is safe for the ecosystem.

Callahan believes the market for carpet recycling will grow substantially. The change will come about when the main purchasers of carpet begin to demand recycling and products with recycled content. It is not a major issue for the education or health care sectors yet, but in government and in corporations, sustainability is beginning to get higher up on the agenda. Corporations need to maintain an image of environmental concern, and government needs to lead the way in diverting waste from landfills. Most of the market is driven by how new carpets are specified - there are no mandates yet, but plenty of initiative to encourage recycled content.

Peoples looks to entrepreneurs to take up the carpet recycling challenge. "CARE is keen to work with the little guys," he said. "There's no way we have the technology today to put 2 billion pounds of post-consumer carpet back into carpet," Peoples said. "We have to find other outlets. It is like a great mosaic, putting in many pieces to achieve the overall goal. Creation of demand for such products will be a critical key to the success of CARE.

TieTek has developed railroad ties that incorporate a mixture of carpet materials, plastics, rubber from recycled tires, other waste materials, chemical additives and various fillers and reinforcement agents.

Peoples highlighted several innovative materials and products he thinks epitomize the direction carpet recycling should take. Atlanta-based Nycore Inc., for example, has seen considerable growth in its business. Post-consumer carpet is sorted, separated and mixed with other components before being extruded into a board. It is an ideal substitute for wood and plastic building materials. The company's products include Nycore, a 100-percent post-consumer-carpet thermoplastic tile backerboard; and Ny-Slate, a 100-percent post-consumer-carpet roofing tile.

TieTek LLC, Houston, is developing railroad ties that incorporate carpet materials. The novel composite tie is composed of a proprietary mixture of plastics, rubber from recycled tires, waste materials, chemical additives and various fillers and reinforcement agents. In extensive field tests, they have proven to be superior to wooden crossties, lasting up to 50 years, according to the company. They also are fully recyclable at the end of their useful life. Fifteen million railroad ties are used each year, and they require creosote a human carcinogen as a preservative. "These composite ties tell a hugely compelling environmental story," Peoples said.

Old carpet also may find its way into plastic lumber or specialty products such as drain sediment filters, which outlast natural hay.

Making It Work

GUTs Vankann is skeptical about whether this entrepreneurial model would work in Europe. He noted that the main products developed so far are probably not appropriate in Europe, where timber is rarely used in construction and railroad ties are made of concrete.

"In Europe, we have taken a technical approach," he said. "We wanted to know the basic facts first, whereas in America they are concentrating on making products and creating new markets. Our research suggests the problem of separating and collecting has to be overcome first if we are to recycle large quantities of carpet. Niche products are only part of the solution."

For Europe, which has no carpet reclamation infrastructure, Vankann said recycling efforts will have to start off looking at energy from waste. Research suggests carpet is a better fuel than brown coal. Carpet is highly efficient and perfect for refuse-derived fuel, he explained. It should be collected up with other high-calorific waste sources to produce refuse-derived fuel (RDF) waste to energy. Once the RDF infrastructure is in place, it may then be possible to look at separating materials from this waste stream for chemical or other recycling. The RDF solution is best for those products made 10 years ago, when nobody thought about designing carpets for easy recycling.

Peoples is keen to explore every possible opportunity available in order to reach the recycling targets. "There needs to be a variety of outlets and uses," he said. There is also a role for cement kilns and energy recovery in our overall plan, but by creating many product outlets for old carpet as a raw material, it will be easier to accomplish our aggressive goals. The key to success will be creating demand for products that contain post-consumer recycled content from carpet. I believe a good portion of our challenge is to get the word out, communicate and share the story of the new industry we are creating a new industry based on sustainable design."

April 2005




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