Recycling: Carpet & Resilient—While carpet’s recycling journey continues, resilient’s is just beginning - Aug/Sept 2021
By Darius Helm
Combined, carpet and resilient flooring account for about 58% of the flooring market, with carpet slowly losing marketshare and resilient, led by rigid LVT, quickly gaining. Carpet, the more mature market, is 20 years into a large-scale recycling and reclamation endeavor, shepherded by CARE, the Carpet America Recovery Effort, while vinyl has barely left the starting gate.
CARE AND CARPET
CARE, the organizing force behind the recycling of carpet in the U.S., was launched in January 2002 through a joint government-industry initiative to increase landfill diversion and recycling of post-consumer carpet. Over the years, the group has helped establish the web of entrepreneurs behind collecting, sorting and processing carpet and, at the same time find end-use markets for the collected polymers.
It was ten years ago that California’s carpet stewardship law went into effect-and it’s still the only one in the nation. Back then, the carpet recycling network was fairly healthy. But that same year, the volume of waste PET carpet started to grow, accounting for more than 12% of recycled carpet volume, up from 7% the previous year. And considering how fast PET carpet was taking share from nylon in the residential market, particularly in the booming multifamily sector (where carpet is replaced the fastest), it was crystal-clear that carpet recycling was about to take a hit. By the following year, it accounted for over 30% of the carpet waste stream. Collectors were getting buried. Carpet Collectors of Sacramento, California collapsed, leaving behind 20 million pounds of mostly PET carpet. Many of the entrepreneurs driving the carpet recycling business went under.
Needless to say, CARE and CalRecycle, which is California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, got off to a shaky start. But then there was progress. Fees on the purchase of new carpet were imposed (and then increased) to pay for subsidies on the various chemical waste streams of recycled carpet and to fund the development of new technologies for separating, purifying and processing the polymer waste streams and also for establishing end-use markets for those materials.
Recycling rates, historically well short of both CARE’s original goals and CalRecycle’s requirements, started to grow. In 2019, right before the pandemic, CARE grazed the goal of 24% by January 1, 2020 with a rate of 22.5% in Q4 2019. And in 2020, the rate jumped nearly 10% to 20.9% for the full year, and the final quarter hit 23.2%, shy of the goal of 26% to start the new year-though it’s worth noting that the recycling rate in Q1 2021 was 26%.
At this point, there’s every expectation for conditions to continue to strengthen in California. Last year, 80% of gross collections were kept out of landfills, the net diversion rate rose to 87%, and the volume of carpet going to waste-to-energy, CAAF (carpet as an alternate fuel) or cement kilns was zero or close to zero. On top of that, the volume of recyclers is growing, and businesses are ramping up their capacities, as end-user markets continue to develop. And all of this is occurring as California’s overall recycling rate-for all recycled products and materials-fell for the sixth year in a row.
The subsidy program, which has been an essential tool in buoying California’s recycling business, has always been complicated, and now it’s a little more complicated. The subsidy on collections has doubled from 2¢ to 4¢ per pound. And following the various subsidy increases for different waste fiber types last year, a 20¢ per pound increase in subsidies for carpet tile recycling and reuse has just been approved. The recycling rate for carpet tile is currently far lower than that of broadloom.
Bob Peoples, executive director of CARE, expects recycled volumes will continue to rise. There’s new capacity scheduled to come online this year and next that will increase recycled output and boost the recycling rate.
As flooring producers try to lower the carbon footprints of their products, they’ll often use recycled materials. On the surface, post-consumer recycled content seems like a superior choice to pre-consumer or post-industrial content, in part because post-consumer content comes from recapturing a product that has already served its useful purpose and making it new again or turning it into something else, while post-industrial material is often scrap from the manufacturing process or from pre-consumer waste streams from outside the company.
However, when it comes to embodied carbon, post-consumer content can come with a heavier burden due to all the emissions accrued from transportation and processing. So a key to the success of any recycling operation isn’t just making a profit but also processing waste with minimal impact, which can be challenging.
In its quest to create Thrive Matter, Universal Fibers experimented with ratios of post-consumer and post-industrial content to lower the embodied carbon as much as possible from its nylon 6,6. Ultimately, it got its carbon footprint down to 2.52 kilograms per kilogram of fiber produced when it switched from 65% post-industrial and 10% post-consumer to 75% post-industrial and 5% post-consumer because of the lower embodied carbon of the post-industrial stream. And with the purchase of carbon offsets to carry it the rest of the way, earlier this year Universal Fibers was able to come out with its Thrive Matter carbon-negative fiber.
CARPET RECYCLING UPDATE
A major player that has emerged for the recycled nylon 6 stream is Aquafil, which depolymerizes recycled nylon at its facility in Slovenia, which it extrudes and sells globally as Econyl. The fiber is 100% recycled from both post-consumer and pre-consumer content, with the nylon mostly recycled from commercial fishing nets and reclaimed carpet face fiber.
In 2019, Aquafil started up its first recycling facility in Phoenix, Arizona, and that same year the firm built another facility near Sacramento, California, but it took PG&E, the West Coast electricity provider, until October 2020 to get power to the plant. In the interim, Aquafil bought Planet Recycling, a carpet collector and sorter located near San Diego-now called Aquafil Carpet Collection. Aquafil is looking to add at least one new location in the north in the near future and plans to continue to expand.
At this point, the Phoenix facility is running at 75% capacity, and Sacramento has ramped up to 20% and should hit 50% by the end of the year. Aquafil captures and sorts all carpet types and components. It keeps the nylon 6 and after processing, sends the rest to other industries.
In terms of PET, many of the technologies that were just being developed a couple of years ago are looking viable, and some are preparing to scale up. Examples include Canada’s Loop Industries, which has developed a process for depolymerizing PET. And earlier this year, Eastman Chemical Company announced that it is building a $250 million PET depolymerization facility at its complex in Kingsport, Tennessee. Using methanolysis, the facility will process 100,000 metric tons of post-consumer waste a year, yielding a monomer that Eastman will use to make specialty polyesters. And last year, Eastman opened up a smaller facility that breaks down PET through glycolysis.
Another important player is Rise Composite Technologies, formerly Fiberon, that makes dimensional lumber from recycled PET and other polymers. And PureCycle Technologies is building a $440 million facility in Augusta, Georgia that will use proprietary technology developed by Proctor & Gamble to generate pure streams of polypropylene from recycled polypropylene (PP) waste. During Phase 1 of the project, PureCycle anticipates an annual output of 130 million pounds.
Arropol, led by Ralph Boe, the former president of Beaulieu America and a chemist by training, has been up and running for a couple of years, taking recycled PET with a 97% purity and breaking it down into its two component molecules, which then go into a reactor for production of urethanes. Most of its product is used as foam in automotive applications, as well as for synthetic turf and carpet pad. Business has been soft of late, though recently there’s been more interest-driven by limited supply of virgin materials-including for its use as a blend in other automotive applications. An ongoing challenge at Arropol is securing a supply of high-purity recycled PET.
PVC stands out as the most prominent high-volume flooring ingredient that has no system for post-consumer recycling. For the large commercial firms that sell multiple flooring categories, like Shaw, Mohawk, Tarkett and Mannington, PVC accounts for an inordinate portion of its corporate environmental footprint, and it’s a barrier to a red-list free portfolio because of its chlorinated content. Nevertheless, not only is resilient flooring here for the foreseeable future, it’s also growing at a huge rate due to the surging demand for rigid and flex LVT.
The challenge when it comes to recycling and recyclability is that there are two types of vinyl flooring, everything installed before 2013 and everything installed after. Of course, this is a gross generalization. In the few years on either side of 2013, the vast majority of domestic and reputable foreign vinyl flooring producers moved en masse away from all orthophthalates-which have been implicated in endocrine disruption. The other problem additive, heavy metal stabilizers including lead and titanium, had already largely been removed from vinyl flooring chemistries.
The most daunting challenge is what to do about all that vinyl flooring tainted by legacy hazardous chemicals that’s currently being pulled off the floor, headed for the landfill. Without a viable process for removing the phthalates and heavy metals, the recycled material isn’t suitable for reuse as flooring or other high-contact applications, and vinyl flooring producers feel justified to steer clear of it. However, what they’re making now is far more recyclable because of the greener chemistry. And the first wave of those products, at eight or nine years old, has already started heading to landfills.
According to the Vinyl Institute, there is progress being made in terms of both chemical and mechanical processing of vinyl, and chemical processing through dissolution is looking promising. Dissolving the PVC allows for the various components and additives to be precipitated out in separate streams. This sort of technology would potentially work on older vinyl flooring as well. The other major sources of recycled vinyl come from siding, which is rigid and has no plasticizers, and roofing, which is rigid and does have plasticizers.
Even when these technologies become scalable, it will still be a huge logistical challenge to work with all the various stakeholders and perhaps form public/private partnerships, and beyond all that it has to be economically viable.
In the meantime, LVT producers are focusing on lowering their company footprints and, where they can, using post-industrial recycled content and bio-based content in their products. And many of the market leaders are also coming out with PVC-free resilient flooring made from different polymers, including PET, and even bio-based oils, with varying degrees of success.
Targeting the VCT market, Armstrong’s Bio-Based lines of composition tiles-Migrations and Striations-are just as much notable for their 2% bio-based content as for their much larger polyester content. And HMTX in its Teknoflor brand has Naturescapes, a PVC-free product made of limestone and polyurethane with high bio-based content, and is looking to expand its range of PVC-free products.
Shaw also has PVC-free resilient flooring in the form of its bio-based polyurethane sheet and tile. And it continues to develop its PET resilient tile, as well as a carpet/hard surface hybrid, both of which it hopes to soon bring to the market. And Mohawk has its Pivot Point line of resilient tiles made of polyolefin and limestone.
Interface has not developed a line of PVC-free resilient flooring, but it does have its Nora rubber flooring business. And the recycled content of its LVT, sourced from Korea, was recently increased to 39%. The flooring that comes out of Gerflor’s LVT Clic facility in France has 55% recycled content. And in Europe, which has more advanced and successful vinyl reclamation programs, Gerflor also uses reclaimed resilient flooring in its products at an annual rate of about 50,000 tons.
Carpet and vinyl flooring account for the bulk of polymers used in the flooring industry and eventually ending up as waste. Another big chunk comes from synthetic rugs.
For carpet, most of what is reclaimed is residential carpet made up of PET face fiber (and smaller volumes of nylon 6 and 6,6, along with some triexta from Mohawk SmartStrand carpet) tufted into a polypropylene backing bound by latex and calcium carbonate to a PP secondary backing. The polypropylene, PET and nylon are recyclable thermoplastics, while the SB latex, an emulsion polymer, can’t be remelted and is hard to recycle. Calcium carbonate is naturally occurring and abundant, with little resale value, although in California, a subsidy is attached to the sale of calcium carbonate captured from carpet.
The big commercial carpet mills recapture some of their commercial carpet outside of the CARE network, and these products are mostly nylon 6 and 6,6 face fiber. Carpet tile, which makes up the bulk of commercial carpet, generally has a PET primary backing attached to a base made of various chemistries, usually polyurethane or PVC (vinyl). The big mills that take in reclaimed product often use it to make more carpet tile backings, and sometimes the product is diverted to other end-use markets.
In terms of vinyl flooring, there are various formulations depending on if the product is VCT, sheet goods, LVT or rigid LVT. In all cases, PVC is the main polymer that is used. In VCT, vinyl accounts for less than 20% of the volume, with calcium carbonate conveying the bulk of the product’s rigidity. In sheet goods, the vinyl ratio is much higher, with felt or fiberglass in the backing. Flexible LVT has the highest proportion of vinyl.
Rigid LVT generally has a vinyl cap and some sort of vinyl core, though, increasingly, new cores are being developed, some of which have no PVC at all. But in the case of rigid LVT, which is multilayered, it’s backed with different polymers, depending on the manufacturer, and some are backed with cork.
PVC-like PET, polypropylene and nylon-is a recyclable thermoplastic. However, unlike most of those other polymers, it relies on additives to convey resilience and stability.
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