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Alexis Petru headshot

Carpet Recycling Jumps 52 Percent in 2013

By Alexis Petru

Fourteen percent of carpet was recycled into new products or used to produce energy last year – rather than buried in landfills – according to a new report from the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), a nonprofit initiated by both the carpet industry and government agencies to boost carpet recycling nationwide.

This figure may seem like a drop in the bucket against the 3.7 billion pounds of carpet discarded in 2013, but it actually represents a significant improvement over previous years: Diversion of carpet from the landfill rose 52 percent from 2012 to 2013.

CARE estimates that the environmental impact of keeping this material from the landfill is equivalent to taking 40,822 cars off the road or powering 17,692 homes for one year, the organization wrote in its annual report for 2013.

Of the more than 500 million pounds of carpet rescued from the landfill in 2013, 4 percent was used to power cement production facilities, while 10 percent was combusted to create thermal energy in waste-to-energy plants, the report found. Around 2 percent was able to be reused – refurbished and resold or donated back into the marketplace – and less than 1 percent was incinerated.

Thirty-five percent of the carpet diverted from the landfill was recycled into new products, according to the report: About half was manufactured into engineered plastic resins that can be used to make composite lumber, tile backer board, roofing shingles and automotive parts. The other 44 percent was turned back into new carpet in a closed-loop process – the “holy grail” of recycling.

Interestingly, at a time when manufacturing continues to leave the United States and many recyclables are shipped overseas to China, 93 percent of the carpet collected stayed in the U.S. for recycling, reuse or energy generation, the report stated.

CARE also provided details on its carpet recovery efforts in California, where legislation now mandates that carpet manufacturers finance and manage the collection and recycling of their products. The Golden State, which is the first in the country to pass such a policy, designated CARE as the lead organization to carry out carpet recycling in the state.

Modeled after similar industry-funded recycling programs in Europe and Canada, California’s carpet stewardship law is an example of extended producer responsibility (EPR), where the manufacturers of a product take responsibility for the environmental and social impacts of their product throughout its lifecycle – from sourcing the material and production to consumer use and disposal. EPR has multiple benefits: It relieves governments and taxpayers from the high costs of product disposal, and it encourages manufacturers to make more sustainable products – because they are faced with the externalities of their operations.

Disposal dilemmas

Carpet poses a unique waste management challenge: The bulky material takes up precious space in landfills and, each year, accounts for over 1 percent of the country’s total waste stream by weight or 2 percent by volume, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Furthermore, the process to recycle the floor covering isn’t so simple. Carpet is made up of two components – the face fiber, often made from nylon, polypropylene (PP) plastic or polyester, and the backing system, which is typically latex or PVC. In order to turn an old piece of carpet into a new product, a recycler must separate these two components and identify their material type – since different material types cannot be processed together.

There are also no carpet recycling facilities capable of processing  high volumes of carpet made from polyester – or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic – according to CARE’s report. This lack of recycling infrastructure for polyester carpet is a growing problem as more and more carpet is made from PET: Polyester carpet accounted for 34 percent of all carpet collected last year – up 10 percent from 2012, the report's authors found. CARE is attempting to tackle this dilemma, releasing a request for proposals in June for assistance in developing viable recycling outlets for PET carpet.

While CARE has many obstacles to overcome before it can advance national carpet recycling even further, its progress is promising, and its efforts – especially since they represent an industry taking leadership for the waste management of its products – should be commended.

Image credit: Flickr/Reuse Warehouse

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru headshot

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

Read more stories by Alexis Petru