The reasons people continue to put carpet on their floors are almost as varied as the choices of colors, patterns and textures of the product itself. But make no mistake - carpet is the floor covering of choice for a reason. One of the primary reasons, we at the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) have found, is the carpet industry's commitment to this sustainable development and on decreasing their environmental footprint.
Carpet manufacturers are committed to improving both the indoor and outdoor environments through ongoing stewardship initiatives. The industry's mantra is set: we will do more than just cover floors; we will protect the quality of life for future generations. This is an industry determined to truly make a difference.
Responsible products are a major focus of the industry. Even though carpet long has been a relatively low-emitting product among indoor products, carpet manufacturers nonetheless responded aggressively to requests for low-emitting products in the indoor environment. In the early 1990s, the CRI spearheaded emission-testing programs for carpet, and followed them with initiatives to incorporate testing of carpet cushion and floor covering adhesives as well.
This means that, currently, the entire carpet system can be purchased with the CRI Indoor Air Quality Testing Program label that ensures all components are low emitting. Since the mid-1990s, the carpet industry has continued to reduce emission levels as technology has allowed. In fact, the industry has voluntarily reduced the standard three times. Carpet also is the lone floor covering that is tested for its volatile organic chemical (VOC) output, and has proven to be the lowest emitter of all floor coverings.
Aside from the obvious fact that carpet underfoot just feels better, there are numerous other positive contributions that carpet provides within indoor environments. With people spending more time indoors than ever before, "the indoor environment" has become a popular catch phrase for the national media. Building and home designers are constantly on the lookout for ways to ensure that the indoor building materials they select do everything technically possible to enhance indoor air quality for occupants.
It has long been agreed that the intrinsic nature of carpet allows it to hold and trap settled materials such as dust particles and other allergens. However, the industry has long considered this to be a good thing. If these particles and allergens are in the carpet, they're certainly not being inhaled to aggravate allergies and asthma.
Studies have shown that, once they are in the carpet, a tremendous amount of subsequent activity is necessary to re-suspend materials in the air - in fact, far more than what would be required to re-suspend them from smooth-surface floor coverings. Significantly, several current studies link the use of carpet to fewer asthma and allergy symptoms.
Obviously, as the facts so far outlined indicate, carpet can play a key role in a healthy indoor environment. But another part of our industry's sustainability story centers on the rest of the environment - specifically, outside the home and workplace. Manufacturers have taken an exacting look at the whole process of carpet production and what happens to it when it leaves the manufacturer's hands. To make any significant difference on this front, it was important that we came to fully understand this cradle-to-cradle thinking of carpet.
Certainly, recycling is a vital component of the industry's effort to keep discarded carpet from being dumped in landfills. But in the whole scheme of things, recycling is actually the last step in a hierarchy of activities aimed at handling waste in an environmentally sound manner.
In the carpet industry, manufacturers first reduce the amount of waste generated by their plants. Next, they find ways to reuse materials. And finally, they recycle any remaining waste materials for some economically feasible use.
The carpet industry has reduced carpet production water usage by 46 percent since 1990. Similarly, reduction of energy use is now considered both a responsibility and an economic catalyst in this industry. And solid-waste recycling has jumped from practically nothing to 80 percent or more over the last 10 years. Likewise, our emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS) have been reduced 50 percent and 75 percent, respectively, over the same period.
This is where a key part of our strategy has come into play. To achieve our goals, awareness and demand for products that contain recycled material must be created. We know how to collect post-consumer carpet today, but the problem concerns what to do with it. If there are no outlets for the material, the pipeline becomes clogged very quickly.
We currently maintain a green product matrix that lists which products commercially available now contain post-consumer carpet. As the demand for these products grows, and additional ones are introduced, the volume of discarded carpet that we can divert from the landfill will begin to increase exponentially.
Some of the most exciting possibilities for these materials include their incorporation into composite lumber such as decking, rail ties and marine timbers. Synthetic carpet cushion made from 100 percent post-consumer carpet also is available today. GeoHay and sediment erosion-control products now are on the market.
Many such products made from post-consumer carpet actually outperform existing materials due to their strength and longevity. Anytime you can extend the life of a product, all other things being equal, you have reduced its environmental footprint.
Take the case of rail ties, for example. Currently, the vast majority of rail ties are made from wood that is harvested from trees. And because the ties sit in the ground and in wet environments, the wood timbers must be soaked in creosote to help prevent rot and insect infestation. That creosote ultimately leaches into the local environment to contaminate soil and groundwater.
Composite ties, which are commercially available today, are made of recycled materials. Hence, no trees must be cut to produce them. Because they contain no chemicals, these composite products will not leach harmful compounds into the environment. Further, these ties can be recycled again and again.
A composite rail tie weighs 250 lbs. Post-consumer carpet accounts for 20 percent of the materials used to produce each one. So, for every 1 million ties produced, we can keep 50 million lbs. of carpet out of the landfill. Currently, 16 million composite rail ties are being utilized each year. Do the math, and you can see the huge impact such an initiative can have. Marine timber usage, likewise, will have a similar effect on stemming the flow of post-consumer carpet into landfills.
We realize that the economics of these efforts are tough and that this new recycling industry is being built by entrepreneurs. The key challenge is to get the economics right for these entrepreneurs. CARE is in the process of laying a new foundation for the creation of a new industry. Along with the benefits of keeping carpet out of landfills, this industry will create jobs, provide new tax revenues and lead to the reuse of facilities that today stand idle.
Making these efforts come together in a financially and environmentally sensible way represents the key to sustainability.