Do you remember when recycling was something we thought we “ought” to do, but never considered actually doing? When you replace your carpet, you find a lot of pounds that you are glad to pay someone to haul away. Your supplier will tell you alternatives are not realistic. That is lack of knowledge – not fact.
Granted, you can’t just drive it to a local recycling center (yet): It does take planning. Recycling carpet saves about 200 million pounds of waste from being in our landfills. These are not fantasy numbers, but based on only 20 percent of carpet being sent to recycling. Still not impressed? Because carpet is petroleum based, we are saving 700,000 barrels of oil, or 4.4 trillion BTUs of energy – enough to heat more than 100,000 homes each year.
Carpet is a product with a long life-cycle. That, in itself, benefits our environment: The more long-term products vs. quickly disposable items, the better. Almost all carpet in the United States is “green labeled,” a rating system assuring good indoor air quality by the Carpet & Rug Institute (www.carpet-rug.org).
Some manufacturers put a misleading recycling logo on their specifications or on literature. It means the carpet is recyclable, but does not necessarily have any recycled content. Most carpets produced today can be recycled or “down-cycled” to some degree. There is a difference between recycled and down-cycled, though many companies use the term synonymously. That is also misleading, and it is one reason building owners are confused.
Closed-loop recycled products are made back into fiber vs. a product that will eventually end up in a landfill. Old carpet returned to the company serves as a raw material for new fiber. The closed-loop process can be repeated over and over, assuring that product will never become waste.
On the other hand, products that are down-cycled are reprocessed into another product (such as flowerpots or park benches). The difference is that, at some point, the product is degraded to a degree that it ends in a landfill or is incinerated.
The closed-loop recycling process is so refined that some yarns guarantee the recycled product will never break down to the extent that it cannot be recyclable. Special backings or glues may make a product unable to reprocess. If you want to recycle your carpet at the end of its useful life, you need to make educated choices upfront.
While any manufacturer can find a home for anyone’s used carpet, it is easier (and cheaper) to know each manufacturer’s policy and send carpet back to where it came from. It will get easier as more carpet is reclaimed and the demand for new products grows. The two major yarn manufacturers have very strong environmental statements, and award certificates to those converting to their products – acknowledging an owner’s contribution to sustainability.
We have been talking about recycling carpet for a long time. It’s been an ongoing journey, as retailers are still not convinced the building owner cares. We have entered a new era equipped with the knowledge of the clear and true purpose for recycling carpet. It is up to all of us to use this knowledge to make the strategic choices that guarantee further progress toward sustainability.
Based in Longmont, CO, Carol Blaha is an independent manufacturer’s rep, specializing in floorcoverings, and is a founding board member of the Colorado Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. Her website is (www.carolblaha.com).