Reclamation and Recycling - August/September 2008

By Darius Helm

Even though recycling is only one of many elements of a manufacturer’s sustainability challenge, it’s a major focus because reclamation, recycling and reuse demand a cooperative effort that requires the creation of a complete infrastructure. To succeed, there must be an entire chain of operations not unlike the chain that exists for the manufacture of the products themselves. 

The product needs to be separated from the floor, then collected and transported to processing centers that segregate the product into component materials. Then those materials need to be purified and prepared for reuse before they can be put back into the material stream. Some in the chain perform only a single process while others control multiple stages, but the complete cycle is always dependent on a number of partners working together.

When it comes to flooring, only carpet has made significant headway in the reclamation and recycling arena. There are some overseas vinyl manufacturers, like LG Floors, Gerflor and Tarkett’s European operations, that produce flooring with post consumer content, but little of that is happening in the U.S. so far. Some progress has been made in the laminate flooring industry, with coreboard from recycled wood, and we’ll probably see a lot more of that in the next few years. The same is true for ceramic, with companies like Crossville leading the way in the U.S. Linoleum is largely bio-based anyway, and the main issue it has to contend with is potential eutrophication, where runoff from the decomposition of waste linoleum can deplete water of oxygen. And when it comes to hardwood, its waste profile isn’t that bad, other than its chemical treatments and petroleum based finishes and adhesives. Beyond that, it’ll sit there for decades holding onto its carbon as it slowly rots.

Other than carpet, the flooring categories that produce the most significant end of life issues are vinyl and rubber, both of which are largely composed of petroleum based products, though on the plus side, both categories boast long lifecycles. The two categories have different recycling challenges. The problem with rubber is that it’s a thermoset material, which means it can’t be reheated and turned into new rubber flooring (latex faces the same problems). Instead, it must be ground up and bound with virgin rubber or cork or some other material, making it hard to go cradle to cradle.

Vinyl, however, is thermoplastic and can be turned into new vinyl flooring. That’s what LG Floors does in South Korea, where its floors are attached with spot adhesive, making removal fairly straightforward. In Europe, where a lot of commercial flooring is fully adhered, they’ve developed techniques for removing adhesive and reusing vinyl, either as flooring or in other applications. However, it’s not being done on a massive scale, and there are significant barriers like the removal of stabilizers, plasticizers and other contaminants.

Here in the U.S., no real effort has been made to recycle vinyl flooring, other than Centiva’s project, launching this month. In addition to plasticizers and stabilizers, there’s the issue of the calcium carbonate filler, which accounts for the majority of the content in VCT, as well as laminated layers in products like residential glass backed vinyl. And then there’s the tricky issue of flooring from the 1980s and earlier containing asbestos. Taken together, it presents big economic and logistical hurdles. 

Tarkett’s Johnsonite has developed a couple of take-back programs, as has Azrock. Mannington recycles PVC backings both into new backings and into its Relay sheet vinyl but has not yet developed a program to reuse its vinyl flooring.

Spearheaded by the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), carpet reclamation reached a milestone last year, with one billion pounds of carpet diverted since the program’s inception in 2002. In 2007, a total of 296 million pounds was reported to be diverted, and 93% of that was recycled. That’s a 17% increase in diversion and a 19% increase in recycling from the previous year. In addition, more companies than ever reported complete diversion numbers, up from 19 in 2006 to 32 in 2007, so the bulk of carpet producers are now participating. In addition, the number of collectors grew from 37 in 2006 to 56 last year.

However, another number that grew last year was inventory, due to bottlenecks in the system. Part of the problem last year was the fire at Columbia Recycling, a major recycler of nylon 6,6. Inventory issues have continued this year as well. Shaw’s Evergreen Nylon Recycling facility, which reclaims 100 million tons of nylon 6 annually, suffered a major mechanical issue this spring, forcing a shutdown, though the facility should be fully up and running any time now. However, Shaw continued to do its part in maintaining the health of the reclamation network by continuing to purchase reclaimed carpet.

Interface’s Cool Blue program, in partnership with Universal Fibers’ nylon 6,6 recycling process, has helped create demand for nylon 6,6, and Mohawk’s GreenWorks center, which processes a range of carpet material, seems to have worked out the kinks in its operation and is also emerging as a significant reclamation player for a number of carpet components.

However, the impact of these hiccups in reclamation flow reveals the fragility of the reclamation business. You can’t just have one or two outlets for nylon 6 or polypropylene or nylon 6,6. The fact is that demand is far too low, and even when all the major players—GreenWorks, Evergreen, Cool Blue, LA Fibers, Columbia Recycling and others—manage to operate at top capacity, there’s little hope of hitting CARE’s original diversion mark of 40%, or about 2 billion tons, by 2012. In fact, CARE is in the process of a midcourse correction to come out with a new set of goals.

The state of the economy hasn’t helped. There’s little reason to expect a significant rebound in the housing market before 2010, and at the same time parts of the commercial market are slowing. The entrepreneurs who have helped build the reclamation network are struggling, and some have gone out of business—and by the time conditions improve, more may well throw in the towel. With such weak demand, it’s by and large cheaper to landfill carpet than to reclaim it—hardly an appealing formula for entrepreneurs.

The central issue is outlets for recycled content, and there are few short term solutions. Many believe that it’s essential for the carpet industry to focus as much on post consumer recycled content as it does on reclamation. To paraphrase the analogy of one industry expert, you can keep recycling those plastic bottles, but if you’re not also buying bottles with recycled content, you’re not making a difference—because you’re not maintaining the cycle. The issue at this stage is not simply who reclaims the most carpet but who sells the most post consumer content.

The consensus is that a two-pronged approach is necessary. Carpet producers need to use more post consumer content, and markets outside of the carpet industry must be targeted as outlets for post consumer waste. 

In the past, the vast majority of post consumer carpet content being recycled into carpet has been going into the backing, mostly in carpet tile, but Shaw’s Evergreen facility, which started full scale operations in early 2007, provided a new outlet for recycled nylon 6 fiber, and Interface’s partnership with Universal Fibers is remelting and reusing nylon 6,6 as face fiber. But post consumer content in face fiber is still insignificant compared to content in backings. And it’s not that high in most backings either.

It would help a great deal if the biggest vendors of carpet—home centers like Home Depot and Lowe’s, and buying groups like Abbey and CCA Global—started demanding carpet with post consumer content. Homeowners seem to be embracing the green movement, despite the soft economy (see The Green Building Update on page 56), and it’s high time the major carpet outlets started playing a more significant role. For instance, rewarding member retailers for selling the most carpet with post consumer content could hardly be a bad thing.

The same holds true on the commercial side. StarNet, the independent contract dealer group, has really stepped up to the plate the last couple of years, and its members regularly report diversion numbers. The group gives out carpet reclamation awards for members who divert the most, in medium and large firm categories—Columbus, Ohio based Legacy Floors was a recent winner, reporting 1.5 million pounds of carpet diverted from landfills in 2007. Hopefully, the group will also start giving out awards for the most post consumer carpet sold.

Right now, the largest single use for reclaimed carpet is carpet cushion, which is primarily a residential product. That’s another outlet with room for growth, even though the market is already dominated by rebonded urethane (a reclaimed product) and fiber pad from post industrial waste produced by the carpet manufacturers themselves. LA Fibers, which has been a dominant player in the carpet reclamation business for years, turns most of its product into post consumer carpet cushion—it reclaimed nearly 90 million pounds of carpet last year and is doing its best to hit 100 million pounds this year—and the firm could easily increase production hugely if the demand was only there.

One problematic issue with increasing post consumer content relates to post industrial content. With current technologies, there’s a limit to how much recycled content can be used in carpet while maintaining performance characteristics, so increasing the percentage of post consumer content can impact post industrial recycling streams.

The other market that needs to be developed is the plastics industry in general. It’s a huge market that could potentially not only solve current demand problems for post consumer carpet but also help build the reclamation network into a more robust entity. 

The plastics industry typically uses virgin materials and some post industrial waste, and the concept of using post consumer carpet streams is still in its infancy. But with higher crude oil prices, post consumer material offers huge cost advantages. Furthermore, a trend toward replacing metal components with high performance plastic, in the automotive industry, for example, means that there are more niches than ever for the use of post consumer materials.

Reclaimed carpet is already being used to create various non-flooring products, including some for the automotive industry, but not at a fast enough rate to drive the market.

One of the major stumbling blocks is engineering standards. Not only do recycled materials have to be improved and purified, but plastics producers need to be confident of their quality. That means certifiable standards need to be created, and that takes time.

Over the last year, CARE has been actively pursuing the plastics market, including adding new board members from that industry. Such a partnership will benefit both sides, but it won’t be overnight and some entrepreneurs may have a hard time hanging on until these new outlets materialize and demand starts to rise.

In addition, there’s hope that governmental support, at federal, regional and municipal levels, will also help drive demand for post consumer content.

In the meantime, CARE itself needs more support. In March, executive director Bob Peoples resigned to work for the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute, though he remains an active member of the board. Despite an impressive list of sponsors who help maintain the organization, more support is necessary to help CARE play its critical role in carpet reclamation.

As reclamation streams continue to develop for nylon 6, nylon 6,6, polypropylene and other carpet components, and as it becomes increasingly important for those material streams to reach high levels of purity, the issue of carpet construction rises in importance. Carpets need to be designed not just for performance while on the floor but also for take-back. 

The concept is already gaining traction in the industry. Shaw’s EcoWorx is one example of a product designed for a cradle to cradle process, and Interface has developed technologies to cleanly separate face fiber from the backing with little energy use—and with only 2% contamination. And according to Beaulieu, its Nexterra carpet tiles, which feature a minimum 60% post consumer content from ground glass and recycled polyester bottles, are designed so that the backing can be easily dissolved from the face fiber.

Hopefully, the next few years will bring more breakthroughs in separation technologies and carpet designed for reuse—along with more robust outlets for recycled carpet material. And if the entrepreneurs who have helped build the network can figure out ways to weather the current economic downturn, the reclamation business may well turn out to be the vital and dynamic entity that our industry leaders originally envisioned.

Copyright 2008 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Interface, Mohawk Industries, Mannington Mills, Crossville, Beaulieu International Group, Starnet, LG Hausys, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Tarkett