Carpet Recycling Update: The effort to recycle carpet continues to be an uphill climb - October 2022

By Jessica Chevalier

Carpet recycling is a challenging enterprise for even the most committed. Here, carpet recyclers and Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) offer their updates on the current state of the recycling endeavor.

While carpet recycling is an effort that nearly everyone in the industry supports in theory, the situation on the ground for those actually trying to make that happen is highly challenging, to say the least. California remains the only state with carpet recycling legislation on the books, and, according to Sean Ragiel, founder of New Jersey-based Carpet Cycle, the recycling rate for carpet outside of California is only 3%. And reaching that 3% is a grind.

Louis Renbaum founded DC Foam Recycling in 1994 with a focus on recycling polyurethane foam underlayment and other urethane products. He expanded into carpet recycling when DSM Chemicals and Honeywell opened their Evergreen plant in Augusta, Georgia as a joint venture in 1999 with the goal of depolymerizing nylon 6. At that point in time, the residential carpet market was almost entirely nylon. The group shut the plant down only two years later.

Shaw acquired the facility as part of its Anso Honeywell acquisition in 2005 and began recycling nylon carpet from collection centers across the country, but, soon, polyester began gaining ground.

“Every year, the waste stream gets worse and worse,” says Renbaum, referring to the amount of recyclable nylon to polyester, which is not generally recycled into new carpet fiber but rather into other materials. “The only thing that makes the business viable is not to bring the whole waste stream to one location to sort it. It’s not profitable to haul the waste around, and you have to have a big warehouse. We use a sort-on-site model. We have our guys at the largest carpet stores and distributors in the mornings; they check the waste carpet on site and take only what can be recycled. So, there’s not a lot of waste disposal cost, and we don’t have to charge the customer much. But the business is exponentially harder every year. It’s impossible to make economic sense of it when 80% of the waste carpet is polyester.”

DC Foam has ten locations between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Florida, with another three in St. Louis, Missouri; Columbus, Ohio; and Chicago, Illinois. It only recycles broadloom, as it focuses on supplying its parent company, Wellman Plastics Recycling, with the chemicals it requires.

Carpet Cycle, which Ragiel launched in 1999 after watching his brother build a successful glass recycling business in Texas, focuses its efforts on commercial carpet tile. Carpet Cycle does interior demolition work, with the goal of recycling not only carpet but additional materials, including acoustical ceiling tiles, metal, lighting and wallboard. The company uses the carpet it recycles to make a product called Quiet-Tech, an acoustic insulation composed of 85% to 90% post-consumer recycled materials. The product, introduced in 2016, can be used both residentially and commercially (though it targets the commercial market) in both floors and walls. Quiet-Tech faces headwinds due to the low price of its competitor product, fiberglass insulation, as well as the headwinds of being a new solution that specifiers are unfamiliar with. “If we had subsidies like California, we could get the price down closer to fiberglass,” says Ragiel. As of yet, the product has no mass distribution.

In spite of the possibility Quiet-Tech holds, Ragiel is honest about the slog of the carpet recycling business. “I foresaw being in five to six cities by now,” he says. Carpet Cycle ceased its recycling of residential carpet in 2017. “That used to be 6,000 tons a year,” says Ragiel. “But the recyclable percentage just kept dropping. It used to be 70% of every ten pounds you could recycle. But with polyester in the mix, it dropped below 50%.”

Ragiel believes that manufacturers could assist recycling efforts by designing for recyclability, as has been done with carpet tile to a certain extent. “The problem with recycling broadloom at a high level is that the filler and latex contaminate the fiber and are hard to remove,” he adds.

Interestingly, in late April, DC Foam and Aquafil both had their CARE board seats terminated for supporting proposed New York extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation. And Ragiel resigned from the CARE board, after 15 years of service, in protest.

CARE sent a letter to Franco Rossi, president of Aquafil USA, stating, “We are writing to inform you of the termination of Aquafil’s seat on the CARE board of directors for violation of CARE’s Ethics & Conflict of Interest Policy. As outlined in the policy, each CARE board member is required to support CARE’s mission and adhere to CARE policy. Your recent support of carpet EPR legislation in Illinois and New York is in direct conflict with the mission and is a violation of the policy.”

Responded Rossi, “It is ironic that an organization that runs the only carpet EPR program in the U.S., decides to expel from its board any member who dares to express support for similar legislation in other states. I hope CARE might soon come to terms with its own contradictions.”

In fact, some recyclers across the U.S. including Aquafil’s Phoenix, Arizona plant and Columbia Recycling Corporation’s Dalton, Georgia operation, recycle carpet that has been collected as part of California’s efforts and shipped to out-of-state processors for recycling, reports Ragiel. As messy as recycling is, so too, it seems, are the politics of it.

Asked what hope he sees for the future of carpet recycling, Renbaum says, “Unless there is a shift back to nylon, I don’t see one. And even if that happened today, the outcome would be gradual. The material wouldn’t work its way through the stream for at least five years. Such a shift would require a change in buying habits and some effort motivating that to happen. In addition, carpet is losing marketshare, and I don’t see that changing. When the industry began its race to the bottom on price, quality went with it. Pad will continue to be recycled, and that is the only bright spot.”

CARE marked its 20-year anniversary this May at its annual conference, its first in-person convention in three years. The organization was launched in 2002 as a joint venture between the government and the carpet industry to increase landfill diversion and recycling of post-consumer carpet. In July 2021, the group cleared the one-billion-pound milestone for gross collection of used carpet in California since the start of the California Carpet Stewardship Program in 2011.

The pandemic was challenging for CARE’s recycling efforts in a number of ways. First, one of the two producers of the infrared NIR spectrometer equipment used to identify the fiber type of carpet-a process necessary for sorting-announced it would exit the business. The remaining supplier assured CARE that it was committed to producing the equipment, but then closed production of its carpet identification product in December 2021.

However, prior to the second equipment manufacturer’s closure, CARE launched its ID Tech project, with the goal of identifying new suppliers for the equipment, and that prescient effort produced two news suppliers: TrinamiX, the startup arm of BASF, and Sagitto out of New Zealand. Both of these companies now have technology commercially available on the market.

In addition, CARE has identified a company in Florida that is able to repair existing NIR spectrometer units purchased from the two companies that exited the business. The older units, about the size of a portable drill, were costly, at around $18,000, so there is financial incentive to repair them. The new units are smaller, with the TrinamiX unit about the size of two iPhones and the Sagitto unit a bit larger than a computer mouse.

Secondly, the industry lost a number of recyclers amid the pandemic. Currently, there are only two recyclers in the state of California, but CARE believes that, with the worst of the pandemic behind us, the market is at a more stable point than it has been.

However, the California recycling program is still very much a challenge, as carpet sales are down 35% in the state since 2013, and that makes it harder to collect enough carpet for recyclers as well as enough funding, collected through an assessment on new carpet sales. At the same time, cost for recycling carpet has gone up dramatically. CARE runs a public drop-off site program in California, the cost for which rose more than 70% in 2022-primarily due to fuel surcharges added for transportation and increases in labor and utility rates. Therefore, CARE is forced to increase the assessment on carpet sales to keep the program afloat, but the increased assessment combined with the price increases from manufacturers over the course of the pandemic is expected to further dampen the California consumer’s desire for carpet, and, over the course of the next five years, CARE anticipates a 32% further decline in carpet sales within the state.

All that said, in 2021, the California carpet recycling program achieved an all-time-high annual recycling rate of 27.9%, exceeding the 26% goal set in its five-year plan. And 76.4% of all the carpet collected in California in 2021 was recycled into useful new products, exceeding the program’s goal of 60%. This percentage has grown dramatically over the life of the program from just 28% ten years ago.

CARE believes there is reason for hope regarding carpet recycling. Bob Peoples, executive director of the organization, reports that carpet recycling is benefiting from the increasing awareness and action surrounding plastic waste, with big brand owners, such as soda manufacturers, feeling pressure to solve the plastic waste problem. In some cases, these brands have formed partnerships with chemical suppliers, and the resulting alliances are expected to benefit carpet recycling.

Recycling company Eastman, for instance, announced in November 2019 that it would recycle post-consumer carpet through its Plastic Renewal Technology (PRT), converting it into new, virgin material via its proven methanolysis technology to serve new and useful purposes. The Kingsport, Tennessee recycling facility is expected to come online in Q1 2023.

In addition, Orlando-based PureCycle will begin recycling polypropylene in early 2023, and post-consumer carpet will provide feedstock for this effort as well.

As for carpet recycling legislation outside of California, Peoples reports that New York is the furthest along in passing an EPR recycling law, as legislation has been signed by both chambers but hasn’t yet been sent to the governor. However, Peoples believes the details of the program to be a steep climb. The New York legislation requires the carpet industry to pay for the entirety of the program with no assessment to the consumer. Peoples feels the expectations outlined in the legislation are totally unrealistic.

Illinois, Minnesota and Oregon also have EPR carpet recycling legislation in the very early stages.

Copyright 2022 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Shaw Industries Group, Inc.