What Does Recycled Content in Carpet Mean?

Jan. 22, 2014
Know the sources and certifications.

If you want to walk on carpet and flooring systems made with recycled content, you must first walk on the eggshells of green certification.

The most important considerations involve verification, performance, and aesthetics. Going green can pose a bumpy path.

“Don’t compromise quality and durability, but it’s nice to have a green story,” says Jennifer Woofter, president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting. “People feel engaged when they hear that a carpet came from soda bottles.”

There are three questions to answer before choosing.

What’s the Sourcing Story?
Where a product comes from is the first hurdle. This involves the debate of pre- vs. post-consumer recycled content.

“We hear this a lot with paper,” says Woofter. “If a ream says 100% recycled, we think it’s fantastic. But pre- or post-consumer identifies the real source. The former is made of the scraps that fell off the manufacturing machine, while the latter is made from waste collected in recycling bins.”

Whether one stream is better than the other depends on who you ask, explains Dave Kitts, vice president of environment at flooring manufacturer Mannington.

“Pre-consumer content in LEED math is considered only half as good as post-consumer,” Kitts says. “Some even further debate which post-consumer stream is best. Certain purists believe that carpet into carpet is better than bottles into carpet.”

The discussion splinters even further from there, Kitts notes.

“There are technologies that can shave off the fiber and recycle that into new yarn,” he explains. “But there’s also the twist that carpet can be converted into sheet flooring. It’s very nuanced.”

After making peace with the source of your recycled carpet – be it industrial scraps or water bottles – next comes the question of percentage makeup. And that answer requires verification.

Is It Third-Party Certified?
“The only debate on percentage is the more, the merrier,” says Kitts. “But the recycle stream is always a lesser quality than a virgin raw material. Balance longevity with sustainability.”

To earn the platinum level of NSF/ANSI 140, a sustainability assessment standard for carpet, the product must contain at least 10% post-consumer content. Claims can also be certified by third parties such as SCS Global Services, Underwriters Laboratory Environment, and Sustainable Solutions Corporation.

“Third-party verification is important, especially at higher recycled levels,” Kitts says. “But it entails an audit and cost for the manufacturer. Not all pursue it.”

What Does Sustainability Really Mean?
Perhaps you shouldn’t just be looking for a certain certification or value of recycled content, warns Woofter.

“It’s a bit like putting the blinders on when you just pick one thing and go for it,” she says. “It’s more important to step back and identify how a carpet is used and how long it needs to last. A hideous recycled carpet with a two-year warranty probably isn’t as green as a product with a 10-year service life that can be recycled at the end of its use.”

When you encounter a claim, go beyond the tagline, Woofter adds. Visit the company website, look at a brochure, or ask for supporting documentation.

“Does the manufacturer provide more information than just saying it’s 30%? Do they have a partnership with Coca-Cola or a recycling agency?” she says. “You should get enough information to make a good faith judgment.”

Each of these questions splits into several sub-questions, but you won’t be left weeping after peeling this onion.

“You need to look for meaningful disclosure and transparency,” Woofter says. “Details help you make a confident decision.”

Chris Curtland is assistant editor of BUILDINGS.

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