Carpet Reclamation Update: Demand for recycled fibers continues to fall - Aug/Sep 2015
By Darius Helm
When polyester carpet started entering the recycling stream in a significant way in 2012, it quickly clogged up the channels because supply dwarfed demand. Now, less than three years later, recycled PET carpet still isn’t moving, and demand for nylon 6 has also plummeted.
Several incentives and subsidies have been put in place in the last couple of years, and these have helped here and there. But without any tangible solutions, more collectors and processors are poised to go out of business. Over the last year, falling oil prices and reduced demand from China have driven down the cost of nylon 6, and the shuttering of Shaw’s Evergreen Augusta depolymerization operation has further impacted demand. In fact, most of the biggest nylon 6 recyclers, other than Aquafil, have pretty much stopped buying nylon fiber altogether.
The only part of the reclamation business that is doing well right now is recycled PVC carpet tile, which largely goes to Interface and Tandus Centiva, both of which are always looking for more.
The Carpet American Recovery Effort (CARE), which is the entity that helps guide and organize carpet recycling across the country, has been tackling this problem from every angle. On the one hand it’s busy looking for end-market solutions, with requests for proposals with academic institutions, and on the other hand it is researching technologies to purify PET to marketable levels—pending those elusive end-market solutions. And it’s also doing its best to shore up the reclamation network itself with new $0.02 per pound subsidies for collectors underwritten by a $4 million pool of funds donated by the core PET producing carpet mills.
It’s called the Voluntary Product Stewardship (VPS) plan, and it targets sorters that separate cost-consumer carpet by fiber type and either reuse or sell it. It’s similar to the extended producer responsibility (EPR) that California offers its recycling network, and the VPS is not applicable in that state, or any other state that comes out with an EPR. In fact, the carpet mills insisted that any sorter wishing to participate in the VPS plan had to sign a contract that explicitly declares that it won’t support or participate in any EPR legislative efforts for 18 months after receiving its last subsidy payments.
Marketing Collaborative LLC, Frank Endrenyi’s marketing solution’s firm, is under contract with CARE for the rest of the year, as it continues to hunt for solutions. One of the more promising projects is an initiative at the University of Connecticut to examine the potential for using recycled PET carpet in fiberboard for the construction industry—part of what makes that such a compelling possibility is that it would utilize the whole carpet and not require much in the way of cleaning up.
However, Endrenyi is also looking for cost-effective ways of producing an ultra-clean polyester out of recycled carpet, which would require the product go through solid-state polymerization to build back up its molecular length. But a very clean flake or pellet could really open the doors to higher uses for the material—though, once again, those higher use markets would have to be either discovered or developed.
One recycler that’s doing comparatively well these days is Los Angeles Fibers and its sister company, Reliance Carpet Cushion. LA Fibers collects carpet and it channels all the PET to its Reliance carpet pad, which is largely sold to the hospitality market. However, LA Fibers’ nylon engineered resin business is sluggish, thanks largely to the narrowing of the delta between virgin and recycled nylon.
According to CARE, total gross carpet collections for 2014 came in at 494 million pounds, down from 534 million pounds in 2013 but up from 351 million pounds in 2012. However, these numbers are not necessarily entirely accurate, because in 2013 CARE shifted to calculating its numbers using the mass balance approach, which caused numbers to leap up 52%. An adjustment to the questionnaire for 2014 led to some further revisions, and CARE believes that 2014 and 2013 were probably fairly close in total collections.
Then there’s the issue of where the material actually went. For 2014, 45% of collected carpet went to landfill, 23% was recycled, 23% went to kilns, 8% went as waste-to-energy (WTE) and 0.4% was reused. By contrast, in 2013 48% went to landfills, 35% was recycled, 4% went to kilns, 10% went as WTE and 2% was reused. Those landfill numbers, along with that jump from 4% to 23% for diversion to cement kilns, reflect the impact of polyester carpet. For most collectors, well over half of the carpet they pull in is polyester, and, with few end-use markets, they generally end up having to pay to get rid of it in a landfill. The more fortunate can mitigate their losses by sending it to be incinerated.
A CASE FOR UPCYCLING FIBER
Collectors pulled in 494 million pounds of carpet last year, reporting that 34% of it was PET—the actual ratio of PET in the waste stream is likely over 50%, but the collectors do their best to avoid it—which comes to 181 million pounds, or about 517 million square feet of carpet every year. And that’s only what’s collected. So every year, PET carpet that could cover 137 Malls of America or 9,070 football fields is diverted from landfills by carpet collectors, with the vast majority destined to take a left turn and go straight back to the landfill. That’s not the sort of volume that’s going to get absorbed annually by park benches and cafeteria trays. It requires a solution of a similar scale.
PET carpet isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future, and the fact is that it does have a strong front-end story. When you take a bottle made out of virgin PET, a bottle that was probably around for maybe six months, essentially as packaging for water, and you turn that same bottle into a carpet that essentially keeps that PET out of a landfill for five years or so, that’s a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, those gains are reversed when that same material, in massive volumes, starts landing in landfills and, even worse, threatening the reclamation infrastructure that the carpet industry relies on to reclaim and recycle its used carpet.
In some ways, Mohawk’s SmartStrand triexta carpet is in a similar situation. Its front-end story is that it is 37% bio-based, which is far higher bio-based content than any other synthetic fiber in the flooring industry. And, like PET, it’s a residential product that has just started hitting landfills in the last couple of years or so, and when reclaimed it has no substantial existing end-use markets. PTT volume in the waste stream isn’t comparable to PET, but it’s still substantial. It’s a big chunk of Mohawk’s residential volume, and that has been the case for several years.
A company called EcoStrate, which is in the business of transforming waste using proprietary technology, has been working with DuPont, which produces the Sorona polymer used in SmartStrand. EcoStrate’s strategy is to take SmartStrand carpet and, using a mechanical process, turn it into road signs, which are traditionally made of aluminum. In many foreign markets, those road signs are stolen for their metal content right after they are installed. The PTT signs offer the same performance and durability as the aluminum signs, and once installed, they promise a long lifecycle, so it’s a very viable solution for the material.
In June, EcoStrate’s products were accepted by Caltrans, California’s DOT, for use as pole-mounted signs. According to EcoStrate, it could also make its products out of PET, and even out of mixed fiber.
With recycled PET, purity levels are an issue, and firms like Shaw are focusing on recycling at higher levels of purity. In California, an investment firm called XT Green started up a pilot plant in June with a suite of technologies that do just that. The firm, which does business as EarthCare Carpet Recycling, can separate face fiber so there’s no polypropylene in it at all, it can bring ash levels down to 2% or less, and it can also capture calcium carbonate. A $0.12 per pound subsidy in California is helping to fuel interest in finding markets for the filler.
In fact, EarthCare intends to build its first plant—slated to open next summer—on the outskirts of Los Angeles near a carpet producer, to which it will funnel its calcium carbonate. EarthCare’s technologies have generated a lot of plaudits, but the real test will come when it starts receiving and processing carpet next year.
There’s also interest in using PET’s chemistry in different ways. For instance, ArrowStar, a Dalton based firm focusing on green chemical formulations, has been looking for ways to cheaply break down PET into its components, terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol, for use as a raw material stream for a wider range of synthetic materials.
ArrowStar’s research is still fairly preliminary. According to Ralph Boe, ArrowStar’s president, and formerly president and CEO of Beaulieu of America, the technology works but it requires less expensive ingredients to react with the PET, and so far that problem hasn’t been solved.
However, the most hopeful sign, in its own way, comes from Shaw Contract, and its introduction at NeoCon of polyethylene resilient planks made through the firm’s Cradle to Cradle Certified EcoWorx carpet tile platform. That firm, thanks to its sheer size and scale, as well as its technological expertise, was able to channel its polymer waste stream into the creation of a new product that, as a resilient floor, is destined to last longer than the average carpet.
If Shaw can do it with EcoWorx, what’s to stop Shaw, Mohawk or any of the leading producers of PET carpet from focusing those efforts into making PET resilient flooring? With their economies of scale, their tech, their understanding of product chemistries and their ability to market and launch products, there are no entities more capable of handling that volume of recycled PET carpet than the mills that are creating it.
These days, there are plenty of PVC-free resilient flooring options in the market. Everyone from Armstrong to Mannington to Upofloor, CBC Flooring and now Shaw offer resilient products that use other polymers instead of PVC, all with comparable performance. Some are made of polypropylene or polyethylene, but some are made of PET, including Halo Free and Sequoia from CBC.
Were mills to step up and turn PET into resilient flooring, they would more than double the time before those original bottles get landfilled (possibly more than triple it), which would yield huge sustainability benefits. And at the same time it would salvage the reclamation infrastructure and help sustain the livelihoods of all those collectors, sorters and processors. A program like that, which has some similarities to the Net-Works fishing net program, builds on all three pillars of sustainability. That’s the sort of program that would showcase the flooring industry’s commitment to sustainability.
CHALLENGES WITH RECYCLED NYLON
The issue with nylon isn’t reflected in CARE’s 2014 numbers, but it will have a big impact on this year’s results. The problems started late last year, as falling oil prices combined with reduced exports to China started impacting demand for recycled nylon. Then Shaw, the biggest buyer of recycled nylon 6 carpet, started winding down at Evergreen Augusta as it focused on building Evergreen Ringgold, and other big recyclers also stopped buying post-consumer nylon 6.
So the recyclers aren’t buying it, and the engineered resins market doesn’t need it, because virgin nylon is so affordable. And this comes on top of the massive problem of no one wanting post-consumer PET.
Going forward, Shaw will be processing nylon and polyester carpet, but it won’t be using it internally. Instead, it will sell it on the open market. And Aquafil, which currently shears nylon 6 carpet at its Cartersville, Georgia facility and has publicly discussed building a depolymerization facility here in the U.S. in the next few years, must figure a way to ensure that it gets a steady, affordable supply. Currently, supply exceeds demand for Aquafil, but that may change as Aquafil continues to ramp up its capacity, and the scenario would likely reverse entirely with the construction of a domestic depolymerization facility.
For now, the issue is whether Shaw and Aquafil will enter into any kind of partnership. Aquafil shears carpet, so Evergreen Ringgold would essentially be competing for the same material stream. But it could also make pellets that wouldn’t need to go through the Cartersville operation and could be shipped straight to Aquafil’s depolymerization facility in Slovenia.
The good news about Shaw’s new direction is that the firm has been a committed supporter of the reclamation network for years, and it has generated a lot of goodwill. Most of the collectors and processors in the network believe that, despite losing a lot of business with the closing down of the Evergreen depolymerization facility, Shaw’s new operation in Ringgold will end up improving the health of the recycling business.
At a recent CARE meeting, a subcommittee was formed to delve into the issue of putting information like fiber type on the back of carpets. It’s a topic that was first brought up a decade ago, but that the mills have consistently resisted.
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