Diversion, recycling rates up, but PET problem looms
By Matthew Spieler
Volume 26/Number 26; May 13/20, 2013
Tampa, Fla.—Depending on how one views things, the glass is either half full or empty when it comes to carpet recycling. Those with a pessimistic view feel there is a leak at the bottom of the cup and if it doesn’t get fixed soon, there may not be an industry as presently constituted.
These were the general feelings as representatives of the recycling world—from carpet mills to processors, collectors to government and non-government officials, along with other interested parties—gathered here last month for the 11th annual Carpet American Recovery Effort (CARE) conference.
The good news is CARE’s 2012 annual report revealed members diverted 351 million pounds of post-consumer carpet (PCC) from U.S. landfills, up 5.4% from the 333 million pounds diverted in 2011, and of that amount recycled 294 million pounds back into carpet and other consumer products. This is up 17.6% from the 250 million pounds recycled the prior year. In addition, both the overall recycling rate, 8%, and diversion rate, 10%, were up a percentage point over 2011 and returned to their high water marks reached in 2010.
There is more good news. The U.S. continues to be the primary market for PCC material. In 2012, almost 88% of PCC processed was used within the U.S. This translates into jobs, and according to CARE’s latest survey, more than 1,300 people are employed across the U.S. who are directly involved in the diversion and recycling of PCC. Officials also estimate for every one direct job created, there are three to five ancillary jobs.
Bob Peoples, CARE’s original executive director who returned to the position last summer after being away for five years, said, “When we started in 2002, I said we were building a brand new industry in the United States. Today almost 30% of all recycled post-consumer carpet goes back into carpet and other consumer products. It is gratifying to see just how far we have come in such a short time.”
Werner Braun, CARE’s chairman, added the organization is “doing what it was designed to do: helping find market-based solutions to landfill diversion of post-consumer carpet.”
There was also some encouraging news from the report concerning California’s AB 2398, a law that took effect in July 2011 and mandates a 5-cent-per-yard assessment on carpet sold or shipped into the state. It was the first, and currently remains the only, law of its kind in the U.S. and is a sort of “experiment” to see if public and private enterprise can work in tandem to solve a problem.
While the program is technically only six quarters old and cracks have certainly been found since its implementation, there are some encouraging signs. For example, in 2011, 60 million pounds of PCC was diverted from California landfills, representing 15% of the total amount of carpet discarded in the state and 4% more than what was diverted in 2010. In 2012, the diversion number jumped to 112 million pounds, or 33% of the total amount discarded.
“While it is hard to argue with the successful growth of landfill diversion of post-consumer carpet in California, we are still early in our understanding of what it takes to successfully implement such a program,” Peoples said of AB 2398. “After six quarters of operation, we have learned many valuable lessons.”
Kathy Frevert of the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), the agency that has oversight for AB 2398, called it a “very unique program” and “not an easy thing to do.” Still, during her presentation updating the audience on AB 2398 and the agency’s thoughts, she gave kudos to all who are working on the ground “to make this work,” adding that collaborating with CARE “increases our odds of success.”
Despite the various amounts of positive and encouraging news from the meeting, there are still some underlying issues that are quickly bubbling to the surface, namely the rise of polyester (PET) in face fibers over the last five years, something many call the industry’s “600-pound gorilla.”
Since the economic downturn, the use of polyester has grown dramatically and shows no signs of slowing. The problem for collectors and processors is there is currently no viable recycling mechanism in place or aftermarket potential for the polymer. Unlike nylon, which can be melted back to its polymer state and recycled into new carpeting or other products (such as the black plastic used for cylinder heads in vehicles), polyester looses or has a larger drop in many key performance attributes.
Frank Endrenyi, president of SMS in Acworth, Ga., said when it comes to nylon and the auto industry, 350 pounds of plastic (nylon) has taken the place of nearly 1,000 pounds of metal, as it moves toward more lightweight, fuel-efficient vehicles as well as those considered green because they use recycled materials.
In relation to PET, the story is in the numbers Endrenyi explained that in 2007, for example, only 4% of the carpet diverted from landfills contained PET face fiber, while nylon 6 and 6,6 accounted for 87%. In 2012, 24% was PET and 59% was nylon. During this time, other materials, such as polypropylene, have remained fairly consistent. Some collectors reported PET now makes up as much as 35% of the carpet they gather.
Until a viable solution is found, collectors are forced to bring in more material just to break even, which means investing in additional equipment, equating to a losing proposition.
John Votaw, owner of Southeastern Plastics Recovery in South Carolina, said there are many issues facing collectors and PET is certainly the biggest. Until a viable recycling solution can be found, one way collectors can remain profitable is by “rethinking what they are. We are waste haulers first and recyclers second. How can you be in this business if you don’t charge? You are taking someone’s waste—in this case used carpet—and hauling it for reprocessing, so you must charge on the front end.”
Peoples said CARE has established a committee specifically dedicated to finding a solution for PET. One area where there is hope is in the nonwoven sector, as discussions have begun with both the Nonwovens Institute of NC State and the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR).
Endrenyi said there is a “very large” PET market, and for nonwovens the key is “engaging” with these industries to figure out ways of using PCC PET. “We are working on it, but time is critical.”