The Green Leap Forward: 'Sustainability' -- an old concept gets new life in commercial carpet
Fueled by the rising importance of environmental concerns, "sustainability" has surfaced as an important buzzword in the commercial segment. Still many carpet makers point out that their efforts to "reduce, reuse and recycle" are hardly new. For years, manufacturers have been streamlining their operations with an eye toward saving energy and lessening the amount of waste that ends up in landfills.
What's new, they say, is the increased urgency of environmental efforts, particularly those tied to the voluntary LEED (Leadership in Environmentally Engineered Design) program. Increasingly, manufacturers believe that addressing "green" issues is not only good for the environment but good for the company's image in the minds of consumers as well.
For example, Mohawk's director of technology development, Frank Endrenyi, points to a list of initiatives undertaken by his company that have reduced emissions and increased the amount of old carpet used as raw material in new carpet. He notes that monitoring devices at the company's plants have helped trim water and energy usage by more than 50 percent in the last decade. Also, because Mohawk's plants manufacture products both with recycled content and without, the infrastructure is already in place if the residential segment decides to move more aggressively into environmentally friendly products, Endrenyi says.
Mohawk partners with other businesses to ensure waste material is shipped back and reused. And it is not just carpet. Mohawk also harvests other materials for its carpets containing recycled content-the rubber from used tires is integrated into products which are sold to mass merchants, and 20 percent of the plastic drink bottles recycled in the U.S. are shipped to Mohawk to be repurposed into polyester carpet yarn, according to Endrenyi.
At Milliken, the commitment to the environment is evident at the corporate headquarters in Spartanburg, S.C., where visitors will find a private arboretum. Company officials assure that protecting the environment, including proper forest management, is considered a "core philosophy" of Milliken, which is also a member of the National Arbor Day Foundation
Milliken's director of sustainable initiatives, Bill Gregory, notes that the company has been "involved in sustainability for more than a century." Yet while the commitment is well known among the management team and other staff members, the company has not made a lot of noise about it.
"Since we're a private company, we haven't gone out and beat our chest about it because we feel with environmental issues - as with health and safety - you do what you can to help out," Gregory explains. "But we've had to get a little more open with our practices, since sustainability has become such a marketing issue in the last few years."
Milliken is committed to remaining heavily involved in environmental issues and has in place programs to review the raw material being used. This way, Gregory explains, "bad and questionable chemistry" is kept out of products and emissions are reduced. As a result, the company can offer modular carpet products with 35 percent recycled content.
In addition, professional foresters manage Milliken's properties, a detail somewhat unusual for a carpet manufacturer. The company says it plants six trees for every one it harvests.
Sometimes, the goal of protecting nature is achieved through the use of chemical processing. At Zeftron (Honeywell Nylon's commercial carpet fiber brand), the ability to convert waste into usable raw material is a highly elaborate undertaking.
Honeywell's commercial carpet arm introduced a carpet recycling program (called 6ixAgain) in 1992, utilizing both post-consumer and post-industrial waste. Zeftron's three available yarn systems, all available with recycled content, are sold under the rubric of Nylon 6ix.
"We operate the only closed-loop depolymerization facility in the world," says marketing manager Tim Blount. "We bring old Nylon 6ix carpet back and turn it into virgin-grade Nylon 6ix yarn. It's not just melted and extruded - we use a chemical distillation process which breaks the fibers back into raw material. We've had the capacity for 30 years to do this. But what we didn't have, until 1992, was an infrastructure to get the carpet back to us."
Although Blount predicts a greater role for sustainable products in the residential segment, he says the commercial side is still more of a priority. "There is a limited amount of recycled content material available, and the demand is more for the commercial carpet segment than the residential," he says.
"The materials fiber producers and yarn manufacturers are producing are all being used in commercial carpet right now," he says. "More and more government facilities and public places are requesting products that contain recycled content. Obviously, we want to participate in those market segments."