Wall-to-wall, to dump

Carpet recyling

It’s hard to imagine life before carpet. Almost every American home has carpet in at least a room. So-called carpet squares routinely tile office floors, school trailers, and airports. For whatever reason, we’re strangely attached to it.

Carpet, for all its softness, warmth and infinite patternability, is fragile when compared to traditional floors like wood and stone. For one, it can’t be refinished or repaired, which means when it does (inevitably) reach the end of its useful life, it has to be replaced. Old carpet has to go someplace, and that someplace is usually the dump.

Like vultures, recyclers scout for enormous, untapped waste streams like used carpet to divert and profit from. Yet profitably recycling that carpet is no easy trick. It’s a business of thin margins, and it turns out that carpet cannot even really be “recycled” at all, at least not in a closed loop. Here we show one example of how the recycling is done.

The rug stops here

Ron Greitzer, president of LA Fiber Co., says his carpet recycling plant is the largest in southern California. The company accepts carpet waste of all fiber types and from anywhere in the southwest. What seems like miles of carpet enters the plant daily, by the truckload, to be sorted and stacked.

One shipment of carpet. The plant gets several of these daily, each weighing thousands of pounds.

Change looming

Rugs have existed forever, but wall-to-wall carpeting was born as a solution to shoddy workmanship.

Wooden floors in the 1800s were made of notoriously janky, unvarnished, soft wood boards and was typical to cover these boards with carpet. Wall-to-wall carpet has  remained popular even long after the development of varnished hardwood floors which solved all of the problems that the old wooden floors had . As Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor of the New Yorker, puts it, it could have been a case of carpet trickling down:

Not to mention wall-to-wall carpeting, which I really have to mention because this particular postwar luxury was the way my dad earned a living. He was the owner of Atlas Floors, selling wall-to-wall carpeting, a previously out-of-reach luxury that was available, for the first time, to a middle class now flush with some surplus cash. Wall-to-wall in the new living room said you’d arrived and were a stakeholder in the American dream

To meet increasing demand and lower price targets, the carpet industry transitioned from hand-loomed natural materials to power-loomed natural materials (1870s), and later, to power-loomed synthetic materials (1950s.)

The advanced looms of the 1950s worked with hardy plastics like Nylon and PET (polyethylene terephthalate or polyester). A decade later, a plastics-industry boom would propel plastic carpet into ubiquity.

If the history of American carpets excites you, you can read more about it here.

A big waste

Carpets, plastic or otherwise, don’t last — on average, a bit of carpet gets just five years before being replaced. In 2013 alone three billion pounds of carpeting were sent to landfills in the US. Since disposal costs are measured in pounds, anyone disposing lots of carpet regularly has to cut fat checks to send it away.

Here’s where recyling comes in. A recycler will offer a lower disposal rate per pound than the landfill, incentivizing the diversion and making some money. The recycler then takes that material and churns it into something usable, which they sell. Recyclers make money at both ends this way.

Those who CARE

The Carpet America Recovery Effort, CARE, is a carpet recycling trade group with two goals: to innovate and to legislate. To give them credit, they’ve focused a lot on diverting carpeting from landfills, and to finding to markets for the Nylon and PET.

The PET in carpet

Nylon and PET make about the same quality carpet fiber. And though recycled Nylon 6 (and 6,6) make profitable engineered resins, recycled PET (rPET) does not. Regarding rPET, CARE says “There is no readily established high value market for rPET in the normal ‘plastics world,” continuing with “PET’s next life is usually limited to carpet fiber pads or felts.”

Bales of raw material.
Bales of mixed processed material.

LA Fiber Co., a CARE member, does downcycle the rPET carpet into cushioning (curiously similar to the way recycled tires become asphalt) but no one can recycle that cushioning further, so once it’s retired it too goes to landfill.

Greitzer explains (echoing CARE): “People see you can buy polyester carpet for $20/sqyd and you can buy nylon carpet for $40/sqyd. The consumers choose to buy the polyester because it’s cheaper. It looks as good. It performs almost as good. So as consumers we are creating a problem out there. I can make carpet cushion out of it, but no one else in the world has any market for it.”

The shaping of a PET carpet cushion.
The shaping of a PET carpet cushion.
Towers of baled Nylon that will be melted down into pellets and shaped into hardened parts.

An unruly PET in the house

A lot of the PET used in carpets comes from used plastic bottles. These bottles can be reformed into carpet, but recycling the PET from carpets is another story. As of 2012, only the purest PET could be recycled in a closed-loop (though this is slowly changing, and here’s a recent exception.)

It seems that plastic-bottle makers don’t want rPET for a couple of reasons. First, the mixed-color batches result in a translucent grayish color, instead of an appealing clear. Second, the PET polymer is deteriorated by the meeting and extruding, making further recycling difficult.

This means that most of the billions of bottles that are fortunate enough to be reborn as carpet will too eventually end up in the landfill.

PET cushion processing.
PET cushion processing.

One way to sustainably recycle PET is to chemically recycle it down to purity. But it isn’t possible to recycle PET safely, quickly, and to high purity all at the same time and in high volume. CARE has recently (since 2014) begun an initiative to investigate PET recycling, since the market for post-consumer PET carpet has surged from 7% to 35% in the last seven years (and is continuing to grow.) Without such intervention, you can probably guess where this PET will go.

From the 2013 CARE annual report.
From the 2013 CARE annual report. The vertical axis is percent post-consumer carpet.

Carpet makes up 1-2% of landfill matter by volume. Exactly how much of it is recycled every year is unclear. CARE estimates that somewhere between 5% and 35% of carpets were recycled in 2013, giving more weight to the second number. The fate of PET carpet is not clear from the report.

AB 2398

California AB 2398 now legislates a 10-cent fee/sqyard (as of April 2015) that carpet manufacturers have to pay in order to fund recyclers. This is a neutered form of “end-of-life management” where the manufacturer would have to pay the full cost of recycling or disposal, but it’s better than nothing. The funds help people like Greitzer, who says “it’s a business of pennies.”

In conclusion

As the problem of PET waste grows it’s unclear whether the carpet industry will solve it on its own. There is a chance carpet could be recycled into itself forever, and already, at least one has constructed a plant for closed-loop PET recycling. Time will tell if this can be done profitably.

An end-of-life management scheme for manufacturers would increase the number of recyclers, but given the costs, it’s unimaginable that the industry would hand itself such a hefty burden. And CARE is probably counting on the fact that it regulates itself well enough that no one will ask for more. Unfortunately they are probably right.

If the carpet industry changes any time soon, it will probably be to recover material more from the growing PET waste stream, and that will only happen if the recycling technology can catch up.

Note: This article could not have been written without the help of Ron Greitzer, president of LA Fiber Co., who generously gave us a tour of the carpet recycling plant in Vernon, CA. All photos were taken there in August 2015.

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