State of Sustainability 2011 - Aug/Sep 2011

By Darius Helm


The most recent slowdown in the commercial market served as a true test for the sustainability movement, with many wondering if the greening of the industry had gained enough traction to maintain momentum in a downturn. It turns out that the movement is alive and well.

Over the last decade, thanks in large part to the work of entities like the U.S. Green Building Council, green programs and products have gained sufficient foothold to be adding value to commercial and residential applications, and despite the economic slowdown manufacturers have continued to innovate. Part of the reason for the continued demand for sustainability, in terms of flooring, is that green products are often not priced more than traditional products.

While the commercial market gets greener and greener, the residential market has been slower to embrace the movement. Part of the problem has been that the residential market has been in a much deeper slump, with the housing crisis now five years old, and consumers really haven’t had the chance to step back and look at the bigger picture.

This year there have been significant developments in all aspects of green flooring. Carpet reclamation is growing at a good clip, thanks to demand from the engineered resins market; green carpet fibers are more prevalent than ever before; and resilient flooring is finally embracing the new paradigm, with growing reclamation programs, recycled content in products and new, greener chemistries.

Following solid growth in 2009, the Carpet America Recovery Effort reported even faster growth in reclamation and diversion numbers in 2010, largely due to increased demand from the engineered resins market. CARE is a joint industry-government collaboration designed to promote the growth of a carpet reclamation infrastructure, and all of the big mills actively participate in the effort.

In 2010, diversion numbers grew by 9% to 338 million pounds, and recycling volume was up 10% to 272 million. In addition, the number of recyclers grew by nearly 40%. There are now over 100 recyclers in the network.

Over 60% of recycled volume was used for engineered resins and plastic parts last year, while another 31% went back into carpet, with 18% going to face fiber and 13% going into backings. Another 5% went into carpet cushion, mostly through the nation’s largest recycler L.A. Fibers, to be turned into Reliance Carpet Cushion.

Last year, CARE hit a major milestone, crossing the two billion pound mark for total carpet diverted since 2002. It took six years for the first billion and only a little over three years for the second billion, so if the trend continues the three billion mark may be less than two years away. Nevertheless, CARE is still likely to fall far short of its original Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which called for a diversion rate of 27% to 34% and a recycling rate of 20% to 25% by 2012—it’s at 5.6% and 4.5%, respectively, right now.

However, it’s worth noting that the original MOU was based on a projected growth in the carpet market that would have yielded discards of six billion pounds, but as a result of the protracted slowdown in the market over the last five years, discards are closer to 3.4 billion pounds.

The other big news in the reclamation business is the establishment of California’s AB 2398 law for carpet stewardship, which was signed by the governor of California last September and went into effect on July 1. The Extended Producer Responsibility program requires that every invoice of carpet sold or shipped into California include a 5¢ per square yard assessment—it’s an after-tax line item rather than an actual tax—to be remitted by carpet mills to CARE for disbursement to carpet recyclers and processors working in the California market. With California accounting for about one eighth of the U.S. population, that translates to approximately 100 million square yards of carpet a year, which would yield $5 million through AB 2398. 

Eligible recyclers must meet the five linked goals of AB 2398: to increase recyclability of carpet; to increase development of secondary products containing post-consumer carpet content; to increase reuse of post-consumer carpet; to increase the amount of carpet recycled; and to increase the amount of carpet diverted.   

CARE intends to disburse the funds based on the diversion levels of processors and recyclers, and preliminary calculations suggest that translates to about 6¢ a pound. If all goes according to plan, those recyclers should start to see money flowing their way in the first quarter of 2012.

It’s not yet clear if other states will follow California’s lead, or even if this experiment will succeed in beefing up recycling rates and boosting the reclamation infrastructure. Some experts in the field are concerned that a state by state approach, which would presumably mean different systems in the different states, may lead to an overly complex system, while a national system may prove more efficient.

The USGBC is in the process of updating its LEED Rating System, with hopes of completing the project by Greenbuild 2012 (which will take place in San Francisco). The process is currently in its second public comment phase, and anyone, not only USGBC members, is invited to comment, though all changes are subject to member approval. Modifications are being made to all LEED rating systems: building design and construction, interior design and construction, building operations and maintenance, homes and neighborhood development.

During this second period, the USGBC is soliciting comments on new credits that pertain to transparency and environmental product declarations (EPDs), which are third-party verified assessments of a product's environmental impact throughout its lifecycle. These two subjects encompass issues such as the sourcing of raw materials as well as chemicals of concern, especially in relation to cancer and reproductive toxicity. Ultimately, the USGBC hopes to create a more holistic approach to specification, arming specifiers with the tools needed to make more informed decisions.

The USGBC plans to reward manufacturers who develop EPDs for their products; these rewards will come in the form of incentives for specifiers who choose the products as well as for teams that specify products that avoid chemicals of concern and those that engage in raw material discussions with suppliers. The EPD approach aligns with systems used in the E.U. and in other nations. By moving to an EPD system, the USGBC hopes to engage some of these international companies, so that they can apply what they've been developing to the U.S. market.

The USGBC reports that there are now 8.3 billion square feet of commercial space certified or registered under LEED (certified buildings have achieved LEED certification; registered buildings are in the process of seeking certification), totaling 40,695 properties. The number of these seeking LEED Platinum, the highest level of certification, is steadily rising. In 2009, 129 projects achieved Platinum level. In 2010, that number increased to 185, and, as of mid-July 2011, 89 projects were registered Platinum. On the residential side, there are 70,118 homes now certified or registered with LEED.

One of the biggest challenges facing the carpet reclamation industry relates to the surge in popularity of PET polyester as a residential face fiber. Last year, PET accounted for 12% of recycled carpet material, up from 7% in 2009 (nylon 6 and 6,6 combined accounted for 71% of recycled carpet material last year, with polypropylene making up another 12%). That 12% PET reflects the amount of PET that was going into carpet some five to seven years ago, when PET made up around 15% of carpet face fiber share. Today that number is closer to 25%, and most experts agree that PET is poised to take a much larger share of the residential carpet market—PET can’t meet the performance requirements of the commercial market, where nylon’s position is largely unassailable.

The problem is that PET, though a thermoplastic like nylon, does not reincarnate well and must be downcycled. That’s why, for instance, firms like Mohawk and Beaulieu can make PET drink bottles into carpet fiber, but they can’t turn PET carpet fiber back into fiber. That’s also why drink bottles can be turned into a staple yarn but must be blended with virgin fiber for continuous filament yarn.

Right now, reclaimed PET is largely going into carpet cushion, and what remains is diverted to waste to energy. But once that volume doubles or triples, which it will as today’s and tomorrow’s PET carpets are recycled, and as the residential carpet business recovers and total volumes go up, even L.A. Fibers’ Ron Greitzer may have trouble using up all of that PET. 

In fact, Greitzer, a CARE board member who runs the largest independent recycling in the country, believes that part of the reason for the demand from the engineered resin channel is due to this shift toward PET among residential carpet mills. The problem is that the reclamation industry gets most of its supply from residential carpet, rather than commercial carpet, which is still almost entirely nylon. In 2008, nylon 6 and 6,6 accounted for 80% of all recycled carpet material. In 2009, that dropped to 76%, and last year it was down to 71%.

Nylons are the recycled plastic of choice in the engineered resin market, but these days there’s not as abundant a supply of reclaimed nylon because of PET growth, a more or less flat carpet market, and increased demand for reclaimed nylon among carpet fiber producers like Aquafil, Universal and Shaw’s Evergreen Nylon Recycling. That’s good news for L.A. Fibers, which sells nylon 6 and nylon 6,6 to the engineered resin market. In fact, L.A. Fibers’ Recycled Fibers division is having its best year ever in 2011.

However, Greitzer’s Reliance Carpet Cushion division, which serves both the commercial and residential markets, has been soft, because it has a direct relationship with industry carpet sales, and also because of the long-term shift from broadloom to carpet tile—carpet tile doesn’t use carpet cushion. Greitzer is a collector, a processor and a manufacturer, which makes him unique among the reclamation entrepreneurs.

Georgina Sikorski, executive director of CARE, believes that demand for reclaimed fibers is still the bottleneck in the business. Over the last few years, CARE has been actively courting the engineered resin market with great success, as is reflected in this year’s results, but much more demand is still needed to maintain the health of the reclamation industry and to increase overall volume.

Another reclamation pioneer is Paul Ashman, who runs Inc., which has two collection operations in Massachusetts and plans on opening two more in New England in the near future. Ashman, who currently sells reclaimed carpet material to multiple processing outlets, hopes to also be processing by early next year. Ashman is currently working on perfecting a new mechanical reclamation technology that will produce a much higher yield of fiber—including face fiber, primary backing and secondary backing—with significantly reduced waste.

According to Ashman, today’s entrepreneurs are more interested in processing than in collecting, and he foresees a bottleneck developing in the collection side of the business, driving up prices, unless things change soon. One of the challenges for collectors is that it’s hard to be viable outside of the major metro markets, where the concentration of carpet that can be reclaimed makes for profitable business. In rural, remote areas, it’s hard for collectors to get viable volumes and turn a significant profit. One solution would be for carpet retailers to also get into the collecting business. L.A. Fibers currently gets a lot of its supply directly from retailers through trailers Greitzer places in their establishments.

For the complete story and Mill Highlights, see the August/September 2011 issue of Floor Focus Magazine.


Universal Textile Technologies (UTT), which is known for its high performance BioCel and EnviroCel backings with high recycled and bio-based content, formed a partnership with Yellowstone National Park last year to purchase the PET drink bottles the park collects and turn them into nonwoven fleece for use in its backing systems. In the past, these bottles were generally sold overseas, even though the products made from them were largely sold right back to the U.S., so the new partnership also significantly reduces the environmental footprint of the reclaimed bottles. The firm collects about 43 tons of PET from the park each year.

Also involved in the partnership is Signature Crypton Carpets, which makes commercial nylon carpet. The firm used backings made from the Yellowstone bottles to create the Yellowstone Collection, with patterns named after notable highlights of the park, like Old Faithful, Grant Village, Caldera, Artist Point and Paint Pots. The collection uses Aquafil's Econyl face fiber with 100% recycled content, and also sends 50 cents from every yard sold to the Yellowstone Park Foundation.

The first installation from the collection was completed this spring at the Snow Lodge near Old Faithful.

UTT is working on creating more partnerships with national parks, like Grand Tetons and the Grand Canyon.

Copyright 2011 Floor Focus