When the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) was created in 2002, the concept of diverting carpet from landfills for the purpose of recycling it back into itself or finding other afterlife solutions was mostly pie-in-the-sky thinking.

Back then, as Bob Peoples, the association’s executive director, points out, “there was no such industry or business model in place for such an endeavor. When CARE was started nothing was going back to carpet, now 25% [of what’s being diverted from landfills] is. That’s awesome when you consider we started from zero.”

Few will argue CARE has made great strides to get carpet not just diverted from going to landfills but helping to find aftermarket solutions for the various materials that make up the product. Since its founding, 3.6 billion pounds of post-consumer carpet (PCC) have been diverted from U.S. landfills.

While that is an impressive number when looked at from the view of nothing 13 years ago, it actually only accounts for roughly one year’s worth of carpet fiber.

Fact is, when the industry began this endeavor no one realized how difficult a process it would be to collect, process and either recycle carpet back into itself or into another product.

“Recycling in general is tough and carpet in particular,” noted Wyatt Rollings, director of materials recovery operations at Shaw Industries. “We had 50 to 60 years worth of R&D to make it so the carpet doesn’t come apart. It’s been made to stay together.”

So it took CARE—along with individual carpet mills and suppliers, government agencies, non-government organizations, and entrepreneurs—a few years to develop a network and system to first collect the material and then recycle or reuse the materials used to produce broadloom or carpet tile.

Once it did, things looked like they were humming along and the lofty goals first set would be reached and even surpassed—albeit a few years later than initially thought, but still being accomplished. And the most important part, according to many, is it was being done on a voluntary basis, meaning there were no local, state or federal regulations forcing the issue.

Another factor that was helping things was the cost of oil, a key ingredient in fiber production. The higher the price of oil, the more expensive it is to make/purchase the raw material in its virgin state. This allowed carpet recycling to become more economically feasible since its costs—which to this day are far higher than the price to make virgin fiber—were more in line, thus making it more competitive.

Unfortunately, the fairy tale started to crumble as the economy started to fall off the cliff into the deepest recession the country had seen since the Great Depression.

Up until that point, the industry was still using mostly nylon—type 6 and 6,6—as the carpet’s face fiber, and that is why the recycling efforts were seeing success stories. These types of nylon, it was realized, could be broken down to their polymer stage and extruded again and again without a loss of performance. Plus, other industries wanting to make their products more environmentally friendly discovered they, too, could extrude the polymer to their needs. For example, a number of cars feature PCC under their hood, such as the cylinder cover.

Despite this success, with a sour economy and record high oil prices, carpet mills, namely on the residential side, began reducing their use of nylon in favor of the less expensive polyester (PET). Technological advancements in the manufacturing process allowed companies to produce a PET carpet that, in most cases, looked and performed as well as its nylon counterpart, but for less of a cost. This allowed them to not have to drastically raise prices.

Specialty retailers loved this, as it allowed them to sell carpet at competitive prices and quickly the wheel was in motion and in less than a decade PET is now used more as a face fiber on the residential side than nylon. It’s not just carpet, though, as Alasdair Carmichael of PCI Fibers noted, PET is No. 1 in world. Since 2001, PET has seen “voracious growth while all the other fibers, including cotton, which had historically been No. 1, have had virtually no growth. So PET is not going away.”

And therein lies the carpet industry’s biggest problem. While PET can be recycled—after all, a considerable amount of polyester used in today’s carpets come from post-consumer plastic drinking bottles—unlike nylon, no method for being able to turn it back into carpet has been found that allows it to perform as good as virgin fiber as well as being economically feasible for another industry to turn it into a product it can use.

This has caused many collectors, sorters, processors and other entrepreneurs (collectively known as C/S/Es) finding it difficult to stay in business as more of the carpet they have been getting back in recent years is PET as opposed to nylon.

Through the efforts of CARE, a “bridge” as Peoples calls it was developed in the form of a two-year initiative known as the Voluntary Stewardship Program (VPS). The $4.5 million program is being funded by the carpet mills and is designed to help C/S/Es. The incentive, he noted “will help bridge the gap until we start seeing some future successes.”

Will it work, as efforts are under way to find markets for PCC PET as well as recycling it back to carpet? That is the $64,000 question. “We don’t have all the answers today,” Peoples explained, “but we’re finding more out every day and hopefully soon we’ll have some real-world opportunities.”

One of those was in the form of a grant to the University of Connecticut. Professor Richard Parnas told the audience of a process the school was developing to use PCC for particleboard. Current experiments have it being combined with bio-based materials such as sisal to help the product meet and even exceed construction industry standards for high density fiberboard—as well as medium density fiberboard.

Testing still needs to be done and a market study is being conducted this summer but Parnas feels with the size of the particleboard market being so huge—$100 billion a year—“this could take all the PET and it wouldn’t even be noticed by the particleboard industry.”

As with many of the technologies presented during the two-day conference, this still has a ways to go before possibly becoming a reality. “There needs to be long-term solutions,” explained Peoples, “and part of the reason for CARE is to help find them, as well as to keep things moving in the short term until we can get some of the bigger projects off the drawing board.”

Along with trying to keep the C/S/Es from exiting the carpet recycling arena there is also mounting pressure being put on by local and state governments to either find a solution or force them to pass regulations, many of which are known as extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws.

To date, the closest to that is in California with its AB 2398 initiative, which mandates an after-sale consumer assessment fee on every square foot of carpet purchased in the state. Because of the PET problem earlier this year the state doubled the assessment from 5 cents to 10 cents a foot.

While there is no debating something must be done to find a solution to the PET problem, when it comes to whether the government should get involved causes a great deal of discussion among participants.

While not the perfect piece of legislation, many who live and work in California, such as Ron Greitzer of LA Fibers, call 2398 “the greatest single piece of legislation passed. We as citizens have been paying bottle and can, tire, electronic, paint and soon mattress recycling assessments. No one has decided to leave California because of these added expenses.” He did add, “If we find an economic answer to recycling 100% of the carpet, then there will not be a reason for government regulation. Big if.”

Gail Brice of XT-Green, points out, “Although there needs to be improvement in the AB 2398 program, the recycling rate in California is four times the rest of the U.S. and this gap will continue to widen. There is a real cost to state and local governments and society for the ongoing disposal of the vast majority of post-consumer carpet into landfills and the loss of the available resources. Unless there are significant changes in the level of support for carpet recycling on a voluntary basis, I believe there will be legislative alternatives taken sooner rather than later.”

She added, “I appreciate the effort CARE is making and think there are some encouraging developments. However, it’s difficult to imagine that any of the solutions will be economically feasible without significant subsidies such as those provided in California for non-nylon material.”

Greg Conigliaro, president of Conigliaro Industries in Framingham, Mass., who was attending his first CARE Conference, said, “I’ve been involved in the recycling industry for 25 years and have lived through many programs to recycle tough items like polystyrene, vinyl, polyurethane, mattresses, etc. Without question, the carpet manufacturer/industry’s investments in recycling are impressive to say the least. Compared to many other industry driven initiatives, the carpet industry is dedicated to real, lasting solutions with a high level of investment and knowledge sharing.”

He added, “As long as the end markets being operated by the manufacturers can keep taking all the material we collect and process, I see no need for legislation beyond some incentive based grant programs that some of the states up here are implementing. It really boils down to the end markets. If we can keep moving the material after processing, there really is no need to legislate it. In Massachusetts, the DEP is providing grant funds to municipalities to help them defray some of the cost of carpet recycling. This voluntary, grant-based approach is much better than legislation in my opinion.”

Sheri Gorman of RD Weis Cos., noted, “I strongly believe in recycling overall. Anything that can be should be, and if cities need to get involved they should.”

Philip Ivey, strategic sustainability leader of Milliken, said, “Each state has a different set of recycling opportunities to address, just as each carpet type has a different set of recycling opportunities to address. State governments can work with local municipalities, collectors and sorters, and regional recyclers can work together to find voluntary solutions that will create jobs and keep carpet out of the landfill. State leadership and the willingness to collaborate is the key.”

He noted how South Carolina “has a great working model of how state-led voluntary solutions can and will work to keep carpet out of the landfill and create jobs. There are a few other states currently considering voluntary solutions as opposed to legislation and are working with CARE to help gather the right players so that collaborative efforts can be successful. Just as with PET carpet recycling reaching a point where there are solutions within reach, focusing on bringing the right players to the table with the same carpet recycling goals should enable the entire carpet recycling industry to mature much faster.”

Russ Delozier of J+J Flooring Group said,” I do believe California is trying and 2398 will succeed. But it will come at a cost that most states, upon counting that, will be unwilling to adopt.”

Eric Nelson of Interface, said, “There are a number of other states watching the program in California closely to gauge its success. There are also a number of states where the industry has taken the lead to increase recycling without legislation. Which one of these models will work the best? It’s too early to tell I think, but the industry has a real opportunity to prove that it can provide leadership and move the needle without legislation.”

The question then becomes can solutions be found fast enough? Most at the meeting believed so, though some remain skeptical.

Ron Simonetti of EcoStrate, which has developed traffic signs made with recycled carpet as opposed to aluminum is one of those not to confident. “The future looks pretty bleak relative to values of collecting carpet. Nylon stream percentages continue to decline to the benefit of PET/PTT. This is very bad for recyclers making it harder to garner any value out of the effort with current valueless polyester. I don’t think we are doing enough to solve the issue based on what [was] presented. There are some efforts going on but I feel they need to be intensified. I just don’t think the mills are doing enough broadly to solve this problem. It is a major industry killing issue.”

He noted, “The funding needs to be increased immediately and monies need to be established for companies like EcoStrate to quickly spool to consume PET/PTT waste carpet. We have been working on getting our materials specified at DOTs for the last year and testing for two years. We still have a long way to go to get significant volume going to support PET/PTT carpet use in our product.”

One thing he did like presented at the show came from Henk-Jan Udding and Chris Reutelingsperger of DSM-Niaga in The Netherlands. An all PET/PTT carpet. “It’s very creative and will support ease of recycling. But, it will take three to seven years to have an effect. Hope it’s not too late.”

Udding said the company has shown it can make carpet made just from PET, including no latex, and that it can be recycled back to carpet without a lose of performance. “We want to bring this globally to market and invite people to our facility to see if it is feasible for them as we started as a tech center not a manufacturer.”

He said the conference was very productive as it gave the two a chance to “get some of their main questions answered.”

Dustin Woolford of Invista, noted. “This process is a journey, but the conference presents opportunities to see how the journey has progressed. CARE’s mission is certainly progressing. The collection network is steadily building, the number of products with recycled content is increasing and the coordination of the supply chain is strengthening. These are happening in the background of the market and economic forces at work. Additional innovation is needed to improve the number of economically viable outlets for the material and collection, but the number of entrepreneurs, recyclers and pilot projects shown at the conference is a testament that this is progressing as well.”

Nelson praised the work Frank Endrenyi of Marketing Collaborative is doing to help the industry find solutions to the PET problem. “I think he is doing great work in the area of PET. He is literally searching the planet for undiscovered machines, technologies and potential outlets for PCC PET. The problem is what we are competing against for plastics and fiber is PET bottle flake. This is an established material in the market place, readily available and typically valued in the 40 cent to 50 cent per pound range. Harvesting PET fiber from old carpet and restoring its properties and cleanliness to go back into plastics and fibers is proving difficult and expensive, particularly given the value of bottle flake. There are some who think incentives are the right way to go so that carpet PET can be more competitive. Well, we now have some significant incentives in place as a part of 2398, so we should see in the coming year if that moves the needle.”

Thomas Holland of Texas Carpet Recycling, said, “I believe CARE is doing everything possible. I’m not aware of anyone in the industry who isn’t aware of the issue and trying to come up with a solution. CARE’s role is not to create the solution but to create awareness and help those trying to actually invent a solution.

“The PET issue,” he added, “is a result of the market demanding lower cost, better performing fiber and the industry has responded accordingly. It’s no different than the conflict with the UBER model and the taxi unions. A new business model has created hardship for what was once a known standard so the recycling industry has to adapt. We’ve done it before with nylon 6 and I’m fully confident we can do this with PET.”