Ecolog: Aquafil: Navigating carpet recycling – Dec 2023

By Darius Helm

Aquafil’s Econyl is not only the most prominent independent fiber brand today, but it’s also the only carpet fiber that is 100% recycled, with both post-industrial and post-consumer content. Reclaimed fishing nets and recaptured carpet are the major sources of the firm’s post-consumer content. The Italian firm depolymerizes nylon 6 into caprolactam at its facility in neighboring Slovenia and regenerates it into new nylon 6.

For reclaimed carpet fiber, Aquafil relies heavily on its U.S. collection and processing operations in southern California and Arizona, which take advantage of the subsidies California offers for carpet recycling. But according to Franco Rossi, president of Aquafil USA, it’s a challenging business, and in many ways, it is becoming more difficult.

After a couple of years of running a carpet shearing operation in Cartersville, Georgia, Aquafil built its Phoenix, Arizona recycling center in 2017 to capture nylon 6 fiber from post-consumer carpet, which is then shipped to Slovenia for depolymerization. At that time, carpet collection in California topped 123 million pounds, Rossi, reports, offering more than enough material for the firm to feel confident it could secure a steady supply through collectors in the area. In fact, within a few months, Aquafil started building a second facility in Woodland, California, on the outskirts of Sacramento.

At that time, the carpet recycling network was already reeling from the massive volumes of PET carpet entering the waste stream, with no significant viable end-use markets for recaptured PET fiber. Unfortunately for Aquafil, it was also during this time that PG&E, the California utility provider, was at the height of its incompetence and mismanagement. According to Rossi, the Woodland facility had to wait nearly three years to get hooked up for electricity.

And over those years, the recycling landscape changed. Carpet collection fell to 77 million pounds, reflecting both the decline in carpet sales and a shift among collectors to change their strategies and be selective in their collection activities, avoiding materials of low value. And the passage of California’s AB 1158 drove these California-based collectors to get into processing and recycling to take advantage of subsidies. It became much harder for Aquafil, based in Arizona, to viably secure sufficient volumes of recycled nylon 6 carpet. For the venture to survive, the firm had to pivot.

In the latter half of 2020, Aquafil had to make a choice of either focusing on developing its Woodland operation, which would give the firm the California presence it needed but would not solve the carpet collection issue, or abandon the second recycling facility and instead invest in carpet collection in California to supply its Phoenix facility. Late in the year, it acquired Planet Recycling, a collector with operations in Phoenix and in Chula Vista, south of San Diego near the Mexico border, and it shuttered its Woodland operation. Aquafil soon expanded its collector business with two more California operations, one in northern San Diego and another in Anaheim, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, effectively covering the greatest concentration of California’s population (and carpet discards). Over 60% of California’s population is clustered in Southern California. It started ramping up carpet collections, which Rossi says helped drive up California’s carpet collection numbers.

If carpet were largely nylon 6, the carpet collection landscape would look a lot better. Not only is nylon 6 recycling comparatively straightforward, providing a clear route for reuse as carpet fiber, but, in general, it has higher value as a recycled material than reclaimed PET carpet fiber. Also, nylon 6 recycled fiber does not have to compete with other sources of recycled polymer, as is the case with PET. However, the bulk of used residential carpet, the main feedstock for recycled carpet, is PET, and the ratio goes up every year.

While many new technologies have emerged to use post-consumer PET carpet fiber, Rossi contends that the larger enterprise of creating viable PET carpet fiber waste streams is facing a couple of fundamental challenges. One is that there are many cleaner and more easily accessed sources of post-consumer PET than carpet fiber, including the ubiquitous drink bottle, posing a substantial challenge to the economics of recycled PET carpet fiber.

Also, Rossi refutes the theory that corporations that would use the feedstock, like those in automotive or bottling, which are major potential recipients of recycled PET carpet fiber, would pay more for recycled PET than virgin because of the green story and its reflection on their own green progress. Rossi notes that Aquafil has substantial experience in terms of the value of this intangible because its Econyl is used not just in carpet but also in apparel from prominent brands, where material usage is a minor part of the value of the product. From his vantage point, premium-priced materials in a 20-gram, high-priced bikini are not going to impact margins compared to a narrower margin carpet with pounds of fiber per square yard. In other words, any entity looking for volume-and looking at PET as a commodity-won’t be able to manage switching to higher cost waste PET streams.

“If you eliminate all subsidies, it’s over,” Rossi says, referring to the viability of California’s recycling program. He notes the many attempts by mills to recycle carpet without some sort of subsidy and their subsequent failure.

New recycling legislation rolling out in places like New York state is focusing on extended producer responsibility (EPR), like in California, where the mills would levy assessment fees on carpet for the purpose of driving reclamation and recycling, but legislators are wary of California-style assessment systems because they fear that constituents would view it as a tax. Another strategy is cost-internalization, which would embed that fee increase in the cost of the product, eliminating the political repercussions but creating other issues due to lack of transparency.

For its part, Aquafil is focusing on shoring up its own operations, including investing in a new line in Phoenix to process PET more efficiently to sell to secondary outlets, where cost is the most relevant attribute. It hopes to get this up and running in the first quarter of next year. Ultimately, says Rossi, the firm needs to be able to find end-use markets for all of the carpet components it extracts.

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