When it comes to the carpet industry and the work it has done on the sustainability side it is hard to argue with the success and strides it has made over the years–especially the last dozen or so when it helped spearhead the formation of the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE).
CARE was created in 2002 as part of a voluntary effort to help not only divert post-consumer carpet (PCC) from landfills, but to help find afterlife solutions for this material—from recycling it back into new carpet to using the various components that make up broadloom and carpet tile for other products.
The non-profit organization, which is still largely funded by the carpet mills, was created in partnership with government agencies and non-government entities in a broad partnership to solve what was deemed a growing concern by many states, local governments and environmental organziations.
And, when one considers what Bob Peoples, the association’s executive director, points out, “there was no such industry or business model in place for such an endeavor at the time CARE was founded,” it has been a tremendous success story. How so? Over CARE’s history recyclers have kept more than 3 billion pounds of old carpet out of America’s landfills.
The latest figures for what the industry did in 2013 versus 2012 were not finalized at the recent CARE meeting in Seattle, nor were they available at press time, but Peoples reported preliminary numbers indicate 438 million pounds of PCC were diverted from landfills in 2013, a 25% increase from 2012.
Since it’s forming, CARE—and the industry—has had to face numerous obstacles, from forming a new industry that includes a viable collection network to ultimately innovative technologies that can handle PCC in a way that makes it suitable for recycling and/or reuse. And, smack in the middle of it all, there was the greatest recession the country, and world, had to struggle through in 70 years.
And, more recently, states have started to enact what is known as extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, which are essentially regulations that put the burdon of making products not end up in landfills on the manufacturers. California was the first to enact such a regulation on carpet, known as AB 2398, though in its case it is more of a product stewardship law as it attempts to share the responsibility across the selling chain by imposing an end-user surcharge on new carpet purchases. Other states at first waited to see how 2398 would unfold and now more than a dozen are trying to enact their own versions of the law.
While there are numerous reasons given for why more and more states are lobbying for some type of EPR regulation when it comes to carpet, the primary source of discontent by both the public and private sector is the proliferation of polyester (PET) carpets as well as others within the polyester family, namely PTT.
Unlike both types of nylon (6,6 and 6), which can be recycled back into new carpet or reused in other applications, PET currently has no economically viable afterlife. Whereas nylon 6, for example, can technically be brought back down to its polymer stage and rextruded without any loss of performance, the same cannot be said for PET, which loses its tensil strength after its initial use as a carpet.
Prior to the recession—not to mention oil prices skyrocketing—PET wasn’t such a big deal as nylon was king of both the commerical and residential markets. But once the economy started to slide and consumers started seeking less expensive products, not to mention the cost of a barrel of oil reaching unprecendented highs, the industry turned to PET and started pumping out it out to the residential market.
Today, PET represents at least 50% of all carpet sold on the residential side and is not showing any signs of slowing down. As a result, many of the companies who got into the carpet recycling endeavor—collectors, sorters, processors and other entrepreneurs (collectively known as C/S/Es) are now finding it difficult to stay in business as more and more of the PCC material they are getting contains PET.
Unlike nylon, where they generally can find a viable market to sell the material to, this means they are forced to dispose of the PET, and the price of doing so is not only increasing it eats into whatever profits they can generate from the little nylon they are getting.
Sal Palopoli of Planet Recycling & Flooring Supplies in Arizona, said because his company is a true waste collector, meaning it contracts with companies to pick up more than just carpet, “I’ll be able to stay in business with or without carpet; it’s the smaller collectors who won’t be able to last if things keep going the way they are.”
It was that concern, and to a greater degree, tension, that filled the air recently as CARE held its annual conference. So much so, that prior to the event a number of meetings between C/S/Es and the mills took place. In the end, it was announced a committee was formed with stakeholders of the various sectors for the sole purpose of finding a viable solution to the problem.
Brendan McSheehy Jr., CARE’s newly elected chairman and vice president of innovation and sustainability for Universal Fibers, told Floor Trends, “The polyester situation is both complex and compelling. CARE saw the directional shift in residential face fiber two years ago. It dedicated a team of experts to seek recovery solutions. It contractually engaged Frank Endrenyi (of Marketing Collaborative, and a carpet industry veteran) to amplify and accelerate this. It listened to the growing damage to our C/S/Es. To the credit of the carpet industry, the listening has turned into encouraging response. This was announced at the conference with specifics as to the formation of a committee to detail proposed concepts into executable specifics.”
One of the problems is that many people are putting all the blame on the manufacturers for creating a product that has no viable end-of-life solution at a time when sustainability is at the forefront. At issue for many is the perception nothing is being done by the mills to help solve this problem.
McSheehy and others are quick to disagree, noting there is research and development taking place, but the problem is manufacturers, which are for-profit entities are not going to simply share new technologies with their competitors and, in many cases, even if they wanted to share solutions they would be forbidden under various anti-trust/colusion laws.
He added that is why CARE asked all stakeholders for “patience, so that anti-trust boundaries would not be—intentionally or unintentionally—violated. Once I understood the legalities and logic behind this, I’ve been in complete support—and would reassure skeptics this is not a smoke screen, nor a delaying tactic on anyone’s part. My sense is that real progress is being made, but the details are essential to success, and details take time to fully flesh out.”
In fact, Paul Murray, vice president of sustainability and environmental affairs for Shaw Industries, admitted as green as the company proclaims itself to be, until it finds a solution for PET, it can’t fully call itself green. But, he noted during one of the conference’s many break-out sessions, the company is “working on a solution” and will let the world know about it once it has been fully vetted and tested.
While many are quick to point their fingers at the mills for the PET problem, there is one other group very responsible as well—specialty retailers and home centers. In other words, those who are selling PET carpets to consumers and then not doing anything to be involved in trying to find a solution.
At the CARE conference and other meetings, there are consistently representatives from the industry’s two largest commercial buying groups—Starnet and Fuse—who not only participate on CARE’s board, they report back to their membership on what is taking place and how each individual member can help be a part of the overall solution. In fact, they helped play a large role in solving the initial nylon problem when CARE was first started by actively collecting PCC from the commercial jobsites and either partnering with mills to take it back or with C/S/Es.
Unfortunately, as many at the conference noted, there is no representation from anyone on the residential side, be it the specialty stores or the boxes, at these meetings and without their input and help no matter what the mills come up with the problem will most likely continue to grow until it becomes too late.
And, by that, they mean, every state will pass its own EPR-like regulation and in some cases the residential specialty store could find itself with haivng to pay huge fees to properly dispose of the PET it takes up from consumers’ homes and could even face large fines that could put a small mom-and-pop company out of business.
While no one is expecting thousands of residential dealers to attend these meetings, both during and immediately following the CARE conference, many participants murmured their frustration as to why not a single representative from the industry’s main buying groups and big boxes were not in attendance, saying if they don’t get involved, finding a solution that will benefit both the environment and the indsutry will be much harder to achieve.
In discussing the residential market, McSheehy summed it best by saying, “You are the source of the best recycle stock—weight per square yard and stretched in (vs glued down). We need more of your nylon and that will require better communications, training and cooperation to capture more of that flow, especially from the many independent deals. Jointly, we need to help consumers understand the value of recycling.”
He added, “Some 30% of all the old carpet that gets recycled today is going back into face fiber. That is a huge technical accomplishment in the last  years.”
In the end, McSheehy believes the industry “can tackle and solve the challenges of PET. Working in unison instead of creating a patchwork of regulations will make more productive use of the large amounts of time, talent and money that would be spent in mandated compliance. By accountably encouraging the market to deliver solutions, we all win.”
But, he cautioned, without the help and input of the residential side, the gains made in the last 12 years along with the businesses who collect and process the material will be in trouble.