The Pivotal Role of Retailers in Carpet Recycling
Back in 2002, the carpet industry took action to reduce the amount of used carpet that found its way into the nation’s landfills. It formed a non-profit organization called the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), and sought to come up with market-based solutions to achieve its goals.
To make this happen, the organization devised a structure that consisted of for-profit companies that collect, separate and process this post-consumer carpet (PCC) turning it into a number of usable raw materials.
Prior to 2002, there was in essence no functioning national system to collect and process used carpet, certainly there was little to no technology to tell nylon from polyester let alone efficiently process the collected carpet. And back then there were few places in the country that could do anything with PCC if they had it.
Jump ahead to 2014. Since 2002, the group has diverted over 3 billion pounds of PCC, it has built a network of entrepreneurs to collect and process the material, it has seen the development of technology to make the processes more efficient and helped establish end-uses for the processed materials. Really starting an industry out of thin air.
Upon the recent release of the group’s annual report (Editor’s note: See story on page 25 about the full report. You can also download the entire report via CARE’s website, carpetrecovery.org.), we sat down with Bob Peoples, executive director of CARE, to note the organization’s progress and get a glimpse at its future.
The following are some excerpts from our conversation but you can listen to the three-part interview in its entirety by visiting the TalkFloor.com website, which is also accessible via Floor Trends’ website, floortrendsmag.com and clicking on the “More Floor Radio” link.
TF: How would you peg the growth of CARE since it was launched in 2002?
Peoples: We have grown very nicely since its inception; we now have over 450 members that are part of the organization and we’re making some pretty good progress. The group has a very diverse membership, which is one of the challenges of CARE, meeting the needs of all of our members and keeping its agenda moving forward.
TF: I think it’s fair to say with the formation of CARE you and the group, in reality, invented a new industry in the U.S.
Peoples: I like to say we started off with a blank piece of paper and we’re building a brand new industry. When we started there was not a single piece of equipment that was designed or engineered to handle or process post-consumer carpet. There was no sophisticated identification technology available in the field and there was a host of questions as to how this material could be handled and where it could be placed.
We have evolved over the years. Now there is plenty of equipment that is specifically designed for the handling of PCC. There is hand-held identification technology to determine fiber type and there are fairly good market outlets that have been developed for PCC, primarily nylons—nylon 6 and 6,6.
There are markets for polypropylene and, as most are aware, the big challenge before us now is finding outlets for polyester.
TF: Bring us up to speed Bob on the progress CARE has made in the past 12 years and fill us in on the annual report.
Peoples: I will tell you that if you look at the historical landfill diversion chart on the site, which we have been publishing since our first report in 2003, you are going to see a very big jump in landfill diversion in 2013.
In 2012 we reported 351 million pounds of PCC that was diverted from landfills. In 2013 that number was reported as 534 million pounds. That is a big jump. We really haven’t seen that kind of jump in the number of pounds being diverted [since we started].
What we did was change the method by which we estimate diverted pounds. Historically we send out a survey to all carpet recyclers and ask them to estimate the number of pounds of carpet they are bringing into their operations. That number was what we have always reported.
This year we took a much more sophisticated approach and attempted to do a massed out [calculation]. That is to say, if we brought this much in the front door, then how do you account for everything that went out the back door?
We are aware most operations do not weigh incoming material, but they most definitely weigh outbound material because they are getting paid for what they ship; they are paying to landfill some material or to send it to waste-to-energy facilities, or they’re shipping it overseas. If you took the total number of pounds going out of all of the facilities in the U.S. and added them up it greatly exceeded the number of pounds coming in the front door as reported.
So, we became very aware that we were missing numbers and, as a result, this year we used the backend sum of all of the output, saying that if we have this much output, then we needed this much input. And that’s how we arrived at this year’s number—which is definitely a step in the right direction.
TF: Do you see that at some point in the future this may not be a voluntary effort and various governmental entities might dictate how waste carpet should be dealt with?
Peoples: I don’t really see that as a possibility because we have made some huge progress. Many lose sight that the development of technology is not an overnight issue. It takes a long time.
Here’s a statistic we’re quite proud of: When we started in 2002, there was virtually no carpet going back into the manufacture of carpet. In 2013, of all the material that ultimately got recycled, 28% actually went back into the face fiber of new carpet. That is an 87% increase over 2012.
On top of that another 17% of everything that was recycled was recycled back into carpet backing, which was a 25% increase over the prior year.
Stated a different way, it has taken us about a decade to figure out all the equipment and process technology required to actually close the loop for recycling carpet back to carpet and carpet backing back to carpet backing. And we feel that you will continue to see those numbers grow.
TF: Because the CARE organization is in existence in what is really a voluntary effort, do you feel that various state legislatures, after the launch of the extended producer responsibility legislation in California will be inclined to stand down on launching additional legislation involving carpet?
Peoples: Sure, if there was not a CARE organization driven by market based solutions I think governments would feel compelled to step in. Most are aware the state of California in 2010 passed a law that mandates five cents per square yard be collected on every square yard of carpet sold in the state.
CARE was selected as the carpet stewardship organization to administer the program for the state. CARE pays out subsidies to organizations that recycle the PCC that has been collected in the state.
That program continues to evolve and is starting to grow. It took two or three years to figure out the best way to run the program and we had some bumps and bruises along the way and now we are on a solid track and starting to see some sizeable growth.
Doing this on a voluntary basis, I think, is a good way to go because it really taps into the entrepreneurial spirit this country is built upon.
I’m not really able to elaborate at this time but in the next three or four months you are going to hear some potentially interesting developments within CARE to help us advance our voluntary efforts in the U.S.
TF: You mentioned earlier the challenge of PET facing CARE. What are your expectations with regard to this issue?
Peoples: When we do crack the PET nut—and we do have a great deal of work going on in this area—I think you will see an incremental jump in the pounds of material diverted from landfills and recycled into useful products.
We do however have tough technical hurtles to get over as it relates to PET. And, more importantly, the economics of PET are much different from those of nylon, which presents the single largest challenge.
If you look at the price of virgin nylon verses the price of virgin PET and then look at the price of the recycled materials, there is plenty of room for margin for the people that handle nylon, while there is little room for those in the supply chain for the handling of PET. So even when technical solutions are developed, we have to be very creative as to how they are implemented in order to clear the economic hurtles required for investment in PET recycling.
There are some very good ideas on the table right now and some very clever people working on trying to solve this problem.
TF: Do you see more states ultimately launching programs similar to the one that has been launched in California?
Peoples: It’s probably likely that we’re going to see continuing activity from a handful of states. There are probably six states that have an ongoing dialog. They look to California as a model going forward.
Quite frankly, however, I feel if one looks at the progress that’s currently being made on the voluntary approach using market-based solutions it will win people over and encourage them to look to remove the hurdles for recycling and work with us as opposed to driving legislation that mandates solutions.
TF: Bob, there are lots of retailers [reading this] who would like to get involved in the CARE program. Recycling is important to many of the consumers that are serviced by specialty dealers. Where can retailers fit in this recycling equation?
Peoples? Retailers in this industry play a fundamentally important role because when a consumer reaches the point of purchase and she makes a buying decision, it’s the retailer who [needs to] ask the consumer if she would like to see her carpet get recycled.
They are the ones that can make the customer aware of the available options. There are point-of-purchase materials available that can help build consumer excitement about the recycling options. I don’t think many people will balk at the idea of paying a few cents per square yard to recycle their [used] carpet—if it’s done on a voluntary basis and the retailer works with them to ensure that it is recycled.
I always find it ironic the commercial sector is where designers and architects are driving the recycled content of materials going into their facilities, yet the vast majority of the carpet that is being recycled is coming out of the residential sector.
Retailers on the front lines most definitely have an important role to play in this whole carpet recycling equation.
Editor’s note: We wish we had more space to continue this wonderful conversation. However, you can listen to the three-part interview it in its entirety by visiting TalkFloor.com, click on the link “More Floor Radio” and scroll down to the parts titled, “CARE’s Executive Director Bob Peoples, The Progress of Care.” And also don’t forget to visit the CARE website, carpetrecovery.org for details about joining the organization.
We’d also love to hear your feedback on this and other conversations you’ve watched or listened to on the site, as well as any ideas of people or companies you’d like to see interviewed. You can contact either Dave Foster at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Matthew Spieler at email@example.com.