Economy not stopping carpet from being recycled

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It’s been a tough go for the flooring industry, any industry, for that matter, since the housing market collapsed in the summer of 2006. For an industry still getting its feet wet, the recession could have spelled doom, which is what makes what the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) has accomplished that much more impressive—diverting more than 2 billion pounds of post-consumer carpet (PCC) from America’s landfills.

That figure was not only reached in 2010, it came just nine years into CARE’s existence. And, when CARE was formed in 2002 as the result of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for Carpet Stewardship by mills, government agencies and non-government entities, the thought of recycling carpet back into itself or as another product was minimal at best.

Back then, only a handful of companies were in the business of diverting and/or recycling PCC, amounting to just a few million pounds overall. Today, there is a growing nationwide network of PCC collectors and a full-fledged industry effort to turn old carpet into new or find outlets than can make it into something else, such as composite decking boards or cylinder head covers in automobiles.

What makes the effort even more remarkable is, despite a small letdown in 2008 over 2007, every year has seen diversion rates increase. In 2010, 338 million pounds of PCC were diverted and 80% (271 pounds) of that was recycled, resulting in a 9% increase over 2009 in terms of the amount of materials collected and a 10% increase in the recycling rate. Compared to when CARE started, last year the industry collected and recycled nearly six times more material than it did back in 2002.

In its annual report, which is required under the MOU, Frank Hurd, CARE’s chairman, pointed out under historic normal conditions the accomplishments of CARE would be impressive enough to make anyone happy. But, “we are doing this in such tough economic times” and shouldn’t be easily overlooked. “While the carpet industry is no longer in a decline, it is far from where it was in 2005 and 2006. It is a real credit to the entrepreneurs, who are the backbone of CARE, that we continue to make progress.”

Georgina Sikorski, CARE’s executive director, called 2010 a notable year for the organization. “We continue to see growth in the industry, both in the number of businesses engaged in carpet recycling across the U.S., and in the diversity of uses for post-consumer carpet in a wide range of proucts. From Ford Motor Co. to Yellowstone National Park, people are getting on board the carpet recycling train.”

Behind the numbers

So what does all these diversion and recycling numbers mean? Quite a bit, considering the prolonged economic slump and a relatively new industry—no matter how one wants to slice the figures.

For example, the 271 million pounds of carpet recycled in 2010 is the equivalent to not burning 2.3 million barrels of oil, and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 265,000 metric tons of carbon equivalent (MTCE). Or, it means over 210,000 cars, or 4,950 railcars of coal were removed. And, it also equates to 25 million tree seedlings grown for 10 years or 851,446 acres of pine trees.

It should be noted, of all the products that are recycled, only aluminum cans have a stronger resource savings in terms of avoiding GHG emissions.

If you extrapolate this to the 1.7 billion pounds of carpet that have been recycled since CARE was born, it would equal nearly 14.3 million barrels of oil saved and reducing GHG by more than 1.6 million MTCE over the nine years. Which adds up to more than 1.3 million cars or 30,690 railcars of coal being removed. In terms of trees, the nine-year total is approximately equal to 155 million seedlings grown for 10 years or 52.7 million acres of pine trees. That is enough trees to cover the entire state of Kansas.

What is interesting to note, and something CARE executives stress, is despite these positive figures, there is still “a long way to go to developing the best and most economical solutions for recycling post-consumer carpet,” Hurd said.

To illustrate, as impressive as the 338 million pounds of PCC diverted from landfills last year sounds, along with the fact 271 million of those pounds got recycled, it is estimated these numbers represented just 5.6% and 4.5% of all the carpets discarded in the U.S. But, to put that in perspective, in 2002, the division and recycling rates were considered to be 1.2% and 1%, respectively.

With 80% of all the diverted carpet going toward recycling efforts, what happens to the remaining 20%? CARE states there are four main avenues other than recycling—cement kilns, waste-to-energy, alternative energy and reuse—with the first two currently representing the lion’s share.

American industry

Interestingly, the CARE effort bucks the trend of sending jobs and materials overseas. It has been estimated for every 2 million pounds of carpet collected, there are about two direct jobs created. This, in turn, creates two additional indirect jobs— and that does not take into account other steps in the reclamation and recycling value chain.

This means approximately 2,000 jobs have been created as a direct result of this effort, along with an additional 2,000 indirect jobs. Because of the depressed economic climate, though, CARE estimates 1,129 people were employed in carpet recycling last year.

As for keeping the materials in the U.S., 91% of the PCC recovered last year stayed in the country, with 6% being sent to Asia, and 1% each to Canada, Europe and Mexico.

In terms of what happens to the recycled material, the majority of it, 58%, is turned into engineered resins with carpet fiber (18%), carpet backing (13%) and carpet cushion (5%) being the next three largest uses. The remaining 6% is divided between molded/extruded products (2%), filler for carpet or other products (1%) and other uses (3%).

Collected PCC also paints a picture of the change in fiber types being used to make carpet. In 2008, for instance, 80% of the fibers were nylon (44% nylon 6 and 36% 6,6). Polyester and polypropylene each accounted for 8% and other fibers represented the remaining 4%.

Three years later and the amount of nylon carpeting collected represented 71% of the total, with the drop coming from nylon 6. Meanwhile, polester and polypropylene have been estimated to equally pick up the difference.

Lastly, PCC collection varies greatly by region. In fact, California alone tops the list, accounting for 30.5%. If you throw in the whole Southwest, the number jumps to nearly half (48%) of all the carpet collected in the country. The Southeast is next at 24.8%, followed by theMidwest (17.5%), Northeast (8.3%) and the Northwest (3.1%)—including Alaska and Hawaii.

Hurd concluded, “I am excited about the future of CARE; the direction in which it is heading and how the economic improvement we expect over the next few years will make it easier to find solutions to recycling post-consumer carpet.”

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