The Afterlife of Carpet Fiber

05/01/2007 | By Karen Penafiel

Green building certification programs and increased end-user demand have brought – and will continue to bring – even more attention to the sustainability of carpet fiber

By Anne Goedken

Already known for its durability and performance in commercial applications, nylon carpet fiber is now also synonymous with green. Since the early '90s, the fiber industry has been working toward making its product, manufacturing processes, and the next life of used carpet more environmentally sound. Green building certification programs and increased end-user demand have brought - and will continue to bring - even more attention to the sustainability of carpet fiber.

Reclamation
Carpet reclamation was the carpet industry's earliest sustainability focus. The push to keep millions of pounds of used carpet out of landfills was strengthened by 2002's Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), a document signed by the carpet industry, a number of states, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and a small group of non-governmental organizations. Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), a nonprofit group based in Dalton, GA, that oversees the goals of the MOU, estimates that 10 percent of all post-consumer carpet was diverted from landfills in 2005. That's a significant improvement from the 3.8 percent diverted in 2002, but a long way from the MOU's ultimate goal of 40 percent by 2012.

To help reach this aggressive goal, both fiber and carpet manufacturers have launched initiatives to make it easier for you to recycle used carpet. CARE's website (www.carpetrecovery.org) features a tool to help you locate reclamation partners in your area. More and more manufacturers are helping to make the process simpler. "It is one thing to say that something can be recycled, but [it's also important to consider] how easily it can be recycled based on logistics and getting it from point A to point B to have it recycled," comments Tim Blount, business leader for Zeftron® nylon, the branded yarn system for Shaw Industries External Fiber Sales Group, Dalton, GA.

The benefits of recycling your carpet include potential points toward green building certification and altruistic environmental reasons, but will it cost you more? "Part of it depends on the location," says Henning Bloech, environmental initiatives manager at INVISTA, makers of Antron® fiber, Dalton, GA. "If a carpet reclamation facility is close by, it will be pretty cost effective. In general, carpet reclamation should cost about the same as local landfill tipping fees."

In order to eliminate or reduce surprise recycling and recovery costs at the end of your carpet's life, specify how the issue will be handled in your purchase contract. This will also incorporate the total lifetime cost into your initial purchase.

The Next Life
After it has gone through the reclamation process, your old carpet may end up reincarnated as new carpet or as a different product altogether. Carpet made with Nylon 6,6 face fiber can be recycled into a variety of products - from automobile parts to carpet cushion. Recent advances in recycling technologies can turn used Nylon 6 fiber into caprolactam (the same material used to make new nylon fiber). "[This process] reduces raw material needs for future generations of carpet so you are not always dependent on virgin materials," describes Brenda Knowles, vice president of commercial marketing at Shaw Contract Group, Calhoun, GA.

Selecting carpet with fiber made of recycled content - whether post-industrial or post-consumer - also increases the demand for green products without sacrificing performance. Is there a certain amount of recycled content you should look for? "Any recycled content is better than none, but 25 percent is generally accepted as the threshold for a meaningful product," recommends Rusty Carter, environmental specialist at Kennesaw, GA-based Solutia Inc.

Carter explains how making carpet sustainable involves more than just recycled content alone: "Choosing the right carpet fiber, combined with the best carpet style for a particular application, maximizes the life of the carpet and extends replacement time."

Anne K. Goedken was new products editor at Buildings magazine.


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