The new carpet scraps and ends recycled at a construction site could conceivably be manufactured from the same carpeting that was pulled out of the building months earlier.
Shaw Industries operates its Evergreen Carpet Recycling Facility in Augusta, Georgia, said to be the largest such operation in the world. Its “cradle-to-cradle” solution is a nearly endless cycle of nylon to nylon production. Postconsumer carpeting is collected and converted to virgin nylon. Nylon 6 is the preferred material.
“As part of our portfolio of recycling processes, reclaimed carpet has three potential pathways back into the economy,” says Jay Henry, director of operation support at Shaw Industries. The carpet can become new carpet; an ingredient for other manufacturers’ products, such as automotive parts; or converted into energy, helping to power Shaw’s manufacturing operations, he says.
Shaw reclaims carpet from commercial and residential customers through a network of independent collectors and recyclers all over the U.S. Used carpet from Shaw and other manufacturers is brought back to be reincarnated into its next life. Shaw also sources postconsumer materials through C&D (construction and demolition) recyclers, who continue to be a tremendous advocate for the recovery and value-added recycling of C&D debris.
Keys to success
“Recycling carpet is easy to deal with [and] pretty straightforward,” says Terry Gillis, general manager at Recovery 1 Inc., Tacoma, Washington. “Recycling is good for the environment and looks good on company literature,” he adds.
Recovery 1 describes itself as a resource recovery, recycling and research facility dedicated to the development of sustainable waste management systems.
Carpet typically comes to Recovery 1 directly from the carpet shop installers. The installers go out with new materials and return to the carpet shop with the tear-outs. They place the tear-outs in 20-cubic-yard to 40-cubic-yard containers, which, when full, are hauled to Gillis’ facility.
“When the containers arrive, we inspect for contaminants and identify the various carpets by face-fiber type and backing construction,” Gillis says. Those parameters determine what to do with the carpet. “We ship residential and commercial ‘action-backed’ carpet with Nylon 6 face fiber to Shaw Industries. Other carpet types go to other processors,” Gillis says.
Inspection is a key step. Henry says C&D companies can do two very important things to facilitate carpet recycling:
- Keep carpet separated from other materials that could contaminate it or make it difficult to recycle. Carpet that can be segregated from waste or other recyclables is not difficult to identify, sort and prepare for shipment to a recycler.
- Continue to identify processes and measures to keep the cost to collect and sort postconsumer carpet as economical as possible to remain competitive with virgin materials. Having low-cost feedstock creates growth in the use of those materials.
Old carpet returns
Companies like Recovery 1 typically charge a tipping fee for the material they accept. The company’s tipping fee for carpet and carpet padding is $60 per ton, the same rate as wallboard. By contrast, the Tacoma operation charges $18 per ton for clean wood and $25 per ton for mixed landscape debris. Commingled C&D materials cost $70 per ton, the company says.
“At $70 a ton, we are less than half the fee of most (nearby) transfer stations,” Gillis says. “There is significant savings to the carpet firm, and the benefits of recycling play a part.”
Gillis adds, “It is rare to see carpet commingled.” That is because demolition contractors know it can be handled solo. They separate the tacking strips, roll the carpet or stack the carpet tiles, put it in a roll-off container and ship it. Usually, the installer takes responsibility for pulling the old carpet and installing the new carpet.
As renovation and remodeling projects begin, the removal team calls a toll-free number on the back of the tile or carpet, and Shaw will pick up the material. This free service is offered regardless of whether the new flooring is a Shaw product.
“Collection is the key,” Henry says.
Across the U.S., Shaw has 50 Evergreen collection points. This carpet collection network covers most major U.S. markets, the company says. If the carpet is made with Nylon 6 face fiber, it is routinely transported to Shaw’s Evergreen facility in Augusta, Georgia, where it goes through an extensive recycling process that first separates the nylon from other raw material components and then converts it into virgin-quality caprolactam, the chemical building block used to produce new Nylon 6.
Shaw says it recycles 100 million pounds of postconsumer carpet each year.
While Shaw is considered the largest recycler of carpet materials, it is not the only recycler of this material. For some shipments, Recovery 1 works with Tandus Carpet, Dalton, Georgia, a division of Tarkett. Tandus is known for its carpet squares and introduced the first 100-percent-recycled-content vinyl-backing about 15 years ago.
Shaw’s network of independent recycling partners spans the U.S. “Typically, those recyclers cover specific geographic areas, where they provide a service to local flooring retailers, installers, contractors and C&D businesses. The mission is to keep carpeting from ending up in landfills,” Henry says.
Qualifying for recycling
One key to assure that carpet is recyclable is to prevent the carpet and padding from getting wet or damaged by the elements.
“We do extract carpet out of the general demolition debris stream, and, when possible, it is recycled as well; however, there are many times when the carpet that has been mixed with other demolition debris is not suitable for recycling,” Gillis notes.
“Essentially, as long as it isn’t wet or hazardous, it can likely be recycled,” Henry says. He says some obvious situations would prevent some carpet from being recyclable, including exposure to chemicals, paints or hazardous materials. The not-so-obvious issue is saturation with water.
The next step in determining recyclability is a testing procedure that helps to sort the material by type.
Shaw and its reclamation partners use a spectrophotometer to read the fiber type of the carpeting. Several devices available on the market can scan the face fiber of the carpet and accurately tell the user whether the fiber is Nylon 6, polyester, polypropylene or a different material.
Honeywell and Shaw, through Evergreen Augusta, led the widespread growth of these devices early in the history of carpet recycling. With this identification technology, specific fiber types can be directed to their highest and best use. This includes the next generation of recycling technology at Evergreen Ringgold, which will be capable of recycling nylon and polyester.
Gillis says he has two analyzers and can give recyclers immediate feedback on the material in question.
On average, 80 percent of the postconsumer carpet Shaw collects is made with Nylon 6 that can be close-loop recycled at Evergreen. When reclaimed material cannot be recycled into new carpet, it may be diverted for reuse in carpet cushion and erosion and sediment control products as well as engineered resins that are used to produce injection molded plastic automobile parts.
Bales of Nylon 6-based carpet are run through a series of shredders. Once ground up, the material is melted in an extruder until it reaches a consistency similar to marshmallow. That melted material goes through a series of reactors that turn the nylon fraction into a vapor. The vapor is purified and recycled into Nylon 6.
A touch of history
In 1999, Shaw introduced its EcoWorx carpet tile, with an environmental guarantee. The guarantee ensured that Shaw would pick up and recycle EcoWorx carpet tile at no cost to the customer.
Shaw accelerated its carpet recycling efforts in 2006 in response to the demand from specifiers in commercial markets for more material with postconsumer recycled content.
“It also presented a compelling opportunity for residential and builder customers,” Henry says.
Since 2006, Shaw has recycled more than 700 million pounds of reclaimed carpet. Over the past eight years, the firm expanded its recycling portfolio to include a diversity of solutions. This helps ensure that the reclaimed material is repurposed to the highest and best use for the respective fibers and material ingredients.
“Carpet is not just Nylon carpet—there is foam, fiber, jute-backed, wool and blends, too,” Gillis says.
While jute-backed carpet is becoming rare, a recycler has to be aware of the various grades of material—commercial and residential being the two main ones—and the many piles of carpet that are available.
Vinyl-backed carpets typically come in squares. They are simply loaded on a pallet. Other carpet is rolled and then palletized.
The most desirable type for recycling is the ‘action-backed’ carpet with Nylon 6 face fiber. But even the stuff under the carpet itself goes through the recycler.
Indeed, carpet pads have value. “Polyurethane foam padding is very marketable,” Gillis notes. He says Recovery 1 bales the material and ships it to buyers.
Recovery 1 will take the low-value commercial carpet or the high-pile, plush residential materials.
Much of the postconsumer carpet collected today has a market value that varies depending on geography, value of the recycled product and local disposal cost.
When working with Tandus, Gillis says he has to arrange for the freight to Georgia, and Tandus pays for the material as well as shipping.
Shaw establishes independent supply agreements with its reclamation partners according to their specific markets served and business models, which vary from area to area.
“Some reclamation businesses are waste haulers that also collect recyclables, and others only handle recyclable materials, which can be totally different business models,” Henry says.
Currently, at the end of a carpet’s useful life, Shaw processes it at its Evergreen Augusta facility or Re2E (carpet to energy) facility in Dalton. The opening of Shaw’s Evergreen Ringgold site, set for sometime this year, is its next major milestone.
“We’re proud to be an industry leader in the reclamation and recycling of end-of-use carpet,” Henry says. “As we continue to drive innovation into our business, we look for new solutions to pieces of the puzzle that continue to challenge us.
“We’re committed to expanding and diversifying our recycling portfolio as appropriate to meet our business, customer and sustainability objectives,” he concludes.
The author is a contributing editor to the Recycling Today Media Group, based in the Cleveland area. He can be contacted at email@example.com. A version of this article first appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Construction & Demolition Recycling, a sister publication to Recycling Today.