Past, Present, and Future: Carpet/Flooring

June 5, 2006

The introduction of manmade flooring products has expanded decorative options for commercial buildings over the years, providing aesthetic (yet economical) durability and versatility. However, such flooring does have a lifespan. As old floors wore out and were replaced, a conundrum developed: What could be done with the old carpet, vinyl, and linoleum as a substitute for relegating it to the ever-increasing landfill piles?

The first U.S. carpet mill opened in 1791 in Philadelphia and set the stage for this decorative floorcovering. Product offerings have evolved over the years, prompting innovators to design different loom techniques and tufting methods.

Mechanization of the industry took place in the 1930s, creating even more widespread demand for the product. In 1950, only 10 percent of all carpet and rug products were tufted, and 90 percent were woven.

Cotton was the primary fiber used in tufted products until wool and manmade fibers - polyester, nylon, rayon, and acrylics - were gradually introduced. Nylon was first introduced in 1947 and grew steadily to dominate the market. Polyester was first used in 1965 and was soon followed by polypropylene (olefin). The introduction of these new fibers (as well as improved spinning techniques, new dye and tufting equipment, and new backing materials) boosted the tufted product market.

Today, tufted products make up more than 90 percent of the carpet produced, followed by woven products at less than 2 percent, and 6.7 percent combined for all other methods, including knitted, braided, hooked, or needlepunched.

In recent years, the industry has faced the challenge of diverting old carpet from landfills and finding new ways to recycle and reuse old products. According to the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), in 2002, estimated total carpet discards equaled 4.7 billion pounds. About 96 percent of all discarded carpet ends up in landfills.

In January 2002, members of the carpet industry; representatives of government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels; and non-governmental organizations signed a Memorandum of Understanding for Carpet Stewardship (MOU). The agreement established an ambitious 10-year schedule designed to increase the amount of recycling and reuse of post-consumer carpet, and reduce the amount of carpet going to landfills. By 2012, the parties plan to achieve a landfill diversion of 40 percent through recycling, reuse, and waste-to-energy reclamation.

There are a number of carpet reclamation sites across the United States. These sites (and some manufacturers) are developing means to separate carpet components and recover polymers. The industry is working toward recycling these materials into new carpet fiber and resilient flooring tiles. The industry is also seeking creative ways to recycle carpet byproducts (such as trim and yarn scraps).

Resilient Flooring
Rubber flooring tiles were first used sometime during the 12th and 13th centuries. Their popularity grew toward the end of the 17th century, and plain, square, undecorated red clay tiles were frequently used throughout Europe in the 18th century.

While linoleum was invented and patented in 1845, it wasn’t manufactured until the 1860s in Scotland. The first U.S. linoleum plant was built in 1872. Linoleum remained popular until after World War II, when easy-to-maintain, durable vinyl flooring was introduced and grew steadily as a market leader, capturing the majority by the 1960s.

Resilient flooring is second only to carpet in popularity, and that means the amount of resilient flooring making its way to the landfill rivals that of carpet. Thanks to its durability, however, resilient flooring offers a long lifespan in most installations.

Regardless of lifespan, vinyl flooring manufacturers are seeking new ways to reuse old product, particularly in light of the fact that vinyl is an inherently recyclable material, despite claims to the contrary.

A 1999 study by Chester Springs, PA-based Principia Partners, as reported by the Vinyl Institute, Arlington, VA, notes that more than 1 billion pounds of vinyl were recycled from post-industrial and post-consumer sources in 1997. A 1989 study conducted by The University of Toledo identified nearly 100 potential applications for recycled vinyl.

In the flooring industry, manufacturers are developing closed-loop systems that allow scraps to be recycled directly back into the process, using the post-industrial waste to manufacture new product. Additionally, some manufacturers also produce products made with recycled post-consumer vinyl content, reducing many tons of scrap each year that would otherwise end up in landfills.

Robin Suttell ([email protected]), based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.

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