Just a few years ago, it looked as if the nascent carpet recycling industry was ready to be rolled up and put in the trash.
In 2001, Evergreen Nylon Recycling, a high-profile carpet recycling joint venture, announced that it was unprofitable and closed its doors. Two years later, Polyamid 2000, a large German nylon carpet recycler, declared bankruptcy and shut down. Other firms were knocked back by these closures with the result that overall recycling rates, already lagging, fell well behind industry goals.
Since last year, though, the industry has been staging a surprising rebirth. The Carpet America Recovery Effort, or CARE, reports that recycling in 2005 was up 100% over the year before, and it is projecting another doubling this year. Numerous manufacturing companies that consume postconsumer carpet are opening up, and Evergreen Nylon Recycling, once dismissed as a white elephant, is on the verge of reopening under a new owner.
Participants in the recycling business attribute the turnaround to a combination of principle and pragmatism. Government agencies and other large buyers of commercial flooring are increasingly demanding that carpet meet codes such as the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) rating system and the new sustainable carpet standard from NSF International, a product certification group. At the same time, higher prices for crude oil and other energy sources have driven up the cost of nylon fiber and other virgin feedstocks for synthetic carpet.
Robert Peoples, executive director of CARE, adds that China and India are exercising a huge pull on nylon raw materials such as caprolactam, used in making nylon 6. "The end result," he says, "is that the value of recovered feedstocks is increasing, and they can compete economically versus virgin materials."
According to CARE figures, about 5 billion lb of carpet was discarded in the U.S. last year. The group estimates that 225 million lb of this was kept out of landfills—some through incineration but mostly through recycling into new products—for a landfill diversion rate of 4.5%.
Although this rate is almost double the 2004 figure, it's below the 10% rate that CARE had anticipated for 2005 when the group was formed in 2002. Peoples says CARE now expects that carpet recycling will evolve along an "S curve": slow growth in its introductory years followed by rapid growth as the practice catches on. "We will accomplish our 40% landfill diversion goal by 2012," he predicts.
Peoples maintains that this year and next will be the "tipping point" for the industry and that projects like the Evergreen restart will catalyze a new period of rapid recycling growth.
Evergreen Nylon Recycling started as a joint venture between DSM and Honeywell, both major producers of caprolactam. Opened in 1999 with much fanfare and an $85 million price tag, the Augusta, Ga., facility was designed to turn out 100 million lb of caprolactam annually by depolymerizing the nylon 6 content of about 200 million lb of old or used carpet.
The plant, however, never got up to that capacity and was shut down by the partners after only two years of operation. It languished until 2005 when Honeywell sold its U.S. nylon carpet fiber business to Shaw Industries. Part of the deal was Honeywell's 50% stake in Evergreen.
In April 2006, Shaw purchased DSM's half of the idle plant and took full control. Steve Bradfield, Shaw's director of environmental affairs, says the company is now upgrading the facility with the goal of restarting it early in 2007.
Shaw, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, calls itself the world's largest manufacturer of carpet and carpet fiber. It's also one of the most backward-integrated carpet makers, purchasing caprolactam to produce its own nylon 6 polymer, which it then spins into fiber.
As Bradfield explains, Shaw was the main consumer of DSM's share of the caprolactam that came out of the Evergreen plant. "We were sad to see it shut down," he says.
Companies that supplied Evergreen with carpet were also unhappy to see it close. Ronald J. Greitzer, president of California-based Los Angeles Fiber, recalls that he used to collect and segregate used nylon 6-based carpet for both Evergreen and Polyamid 2000. "I sold to both and got hurt by both," he says.
Although the Evergreen failure was a sobering event for the carpet recycling business, Bradfield is confident that Shaw can make recycling work where Evergreen's previous owners couldn't.
On top of what he calls a "fundamentally changed" economic environment, exemplified by $60-per-barrel oil, he points out that Evergreen is now part of an integrated carpet manufacturer operating one of the country's largest private transportation fleets. Developed to deliver new carpet, this trucking fleet is expected to provide the "reverse logistics" needed to efficiently return used carpet to the Augusta plant.
Shaw is already starting to build a network intended to collect as much as 300 million lb of carpet waste of all types-the only way the company can get buy-in from the architecture and construction industries. Nylon 6-based carpet will feed the plant, Bradfield says, while carpet based on other fibers will be directed to firms active in other markets, such as under-the-hood auto parts made of nylon 6,6 and drainage system chambers made from polypropylene.
Of course, carpet contains more than just fiber. CARE's Peoples figures that the typical broadloom carpet is 50% face fiber, 31% calcium carbonate filler, 10% styrene-butadiene rubber adhesive, and 9% polypropylene backing.
According to Bradfield, the Evergreen process converts these other ingredients into a hard coproduct that the previous owners sold to concrete makers as a high-energy fuel. Shaw hasn't worked out its plan for the coproduct stream, but, Bradfield says, "I can assure you that we don't waste much around Shaw."
Although most everyone involved in carpet recycling is rooting for Evergreen's success, the industry is far from monolithic in its approach to carpet recycling. There are as many approaches as there are companies participating in the endeavor, as well as diverging philosophies about how best to tackle it.
Evergreen and Polyamid 2000 are the only large-scale examples of operations that chemically depolymerize nylon 6 back into the caprolactam monomer from which it was made. More modest facilities, such as the one operated by Los Angeles Fiber, mechanically separate the carpet face fiber from the backing; they then sell the fiber in fluffy bales or melt it down into pellets for sale to plastic molders.
The advantage of depolymerization is that the resulting monomer can be turned back into a colorless or white nylon polymer that is indistinguishable from the original virgin one. Depolymerization will allow Shaw to use recycled nylon in residential carpet, which typically starts out as a white nylon yarn that is then dyed.
Today, the company consumes more than 20 million lb of mechanically recovered carpet nylon a year. However, Bradfield says Shaw can incorporate this nylon only into commercial carpet, which is made of fibers that are solution-dyed as they are extruded.
Depolymerization has limitations, though. As Peoples points out, the plants are expensive and not likely to be built by the small, private companies that dot the recycling landscape. More important, nylon 6 accounts for only about 20% of the carpet fiber market.
The dominant fiber is nylon 6,6. Made in the U.S. primarily by Invista and Solutia, it commands fully half of the carpet fiber market. Because it is manufactured by reacting two monomers, adipic acid and hexamethylenediamine, the depolymerization process is more involved. DuPont, which once owned Invista, operated small-scale nylon 6,6 depolymerization facilities in Canada early in the decade but found the process to be commercially unviable and shut them down.
Today, Invista is owned by Koch Industries, which is taking the more straightforward approach to carpet recycling, albeit on a fairly modest scale. It operates a facility in Calhoun, Ga., that it has said can mechanically deconstruct used carpet at the rate of 15 million lb per year. Invista declined to comment for this article.
Los Angeles Fiber's Vernon, Calif., facility functions like Invista's plant but on a much larger scale. Greitzer says he expects to collect about 90 million lb of carpet this year, six times what Invista will use.
Los Angeles Fiber opened in 1985 to recycle polyethylene terephthalate bottles and waste from the textile and garment industries. Then in 1998, the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed; before too long, the garment industry started migrating to Mexico, and Greitzer started to run out of feedstock.
"One day in the factory I saw one of my men throw a piece of postconsumer carpet into a machine," he recalls. "I screamed, 'Stop the machine, you'll kill it!' and my manager said, 'Ron, we've been doing this for 15 years.' " Greitzer knew then what his new feedstock would be.
Although it turned out that Los Angeles Fiber had long processed some carpet, Greitzer says shifting to carpet as its primary feedstock presented an engineering challenge that took a good five years to overcome. But he's comfortable knowing that, with 5 billion lb of carpet discarded annually, he'll never run out of raw material.
Today, the Vernon plant accepts all types of carpet and is considered the world's largest carpet recycling facility. Workers wield infrared scanners to sort carpet by polymer type as it passes on a conveyor belt; huge mincing machines then separate the fiber face from the stiff backing material.
Much of the fiber goes to a sister company, Reliance Carpet Cushion, which manufactures a commercial carpet cushion. Greitzer says fiber also goes to myriad companies that incorporate it into cushions, filters, auto parts, and various molded products. Uses for the backing material—less plentiful, he acknowledges—include compost and landfill cover.
Tandus, a privately owned carpet maker based in Dalton, Ga., is less enthusiastic about broadloom carpet recycling than firms such as Shaw and Los Angeles Fiber. Lynn Preston, the firm's technical environmental manager, isn't opposed to broadloom recycling; she just thinks it's a messy undertaking that offers little financial reward. As evidence, she notes that companies like Invista charge customers to take carpet back, while others will only take back carpet that they provided in the first place.
Tandus focuses its recycling efforts on the heavy-duty commercial carpet manufactured by its C&A subsidiary. This carpet, intended for installation in high-traffic areas, comes in tiles or six-foot rolls, rather than the 12-foot rolls common for broadloom, and is backed with polyvinyl chloride, not styrene-butadiene rubber.
At its Dalton recycling facility, Tandus chops up and pelletizes vinyl-backed carpet-face fiber, backing, and all. The pellets are melted and extruded into a ropelike material, which is then calendered into a backing that is bonded to new nylon carpet facing and sold under the ER3 name. Preston says the presence of nylon fiber in the backing reinforces it and actually renders it superior to the original.
According to Preston, Tandus consumes more than 10 million lb of recycled carpet a year and has used more than 100 million lb since the Dalton recycling facility opened in 1995. A newer carpet backing, called ethos, is made from polyvinyl butyral film that has been recovered from safety and windshield glass recycling.
Although Tandus' figures would make it the largest carpet tile recycler, it's not the only one. In 1999, Shaw launched EcoWorx carpet tile, which replaces PVC backing with a polyolefin material developed jointly by Shaw and Dow Chemical. In 2003, EcoWorx won a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the Environmental Protection Agency; the following year, Shaw stopped production of PVC-backed tile in favor of the new product.
The company says it has ramped up polyolefin recycling capacity in Dalton in anticipation of postconsumer EcoWorx tiles coming back for recycling. Nylon facing from the tiles will be processed through the Evergreen facility.
Interface, another Georgia-based firm, also recycles vinyl-backed carpet tile and earlier this year expanded its program with a new technology that allows whole tiles to be converted into backing for new tiles. Interface says it has diverted about 85 million lb of carpet material from landfills since the 1995 launch of its ReEntry recycling program and that the new process could increase its recycling rate to 20 million lb per year.
On top of its focus on carpet tiles, Tandus has other differences with much of the carpet industry. It chides its competitors for sending unusable components to landfills or waste-to-energy facilities and for sending recycled fiber to other industries. It left CARE earlier this year, citing the association's opposition to working with government agencies on procurement guidelines for carpet made out of recycled carpet.
CARE's Peoples counters that waste-to-energy is the outlet of last resort for used carpet and was the fate of only 12% of recovered carpet last year. And he is adamant that noncarpet markets must be pursued. Pointing to Evergreen and Polyamid 2000, he says, "We know that not all postconsumer carpet can be recycled back into carpet."
Indeed, Peoples is bullish on a number of companies that have sprouted up to manufacture completely different products from recycled carpet. Two-year-old Nycore, for example, takes in old carpet and turns out building products such as roofing shingles and backerboard, an underlayer used to support tile flooring. The Atlanta-based firm opened a plant in Medford, Minn., last year and plans to open one in Georgia this year.
Champion Polymer Recycling, a division of Infiltrator Systems, is buying more and more postconsumer polypropylene carpet to support its parent company's production of plastic drainage chambers for on-site wastewater handling. And Paris, Texas-based Performance Rail Tie is expanding the use of postconsumer carpet in the manufacture of its namesake composite product.
When asked what is behind this flurry of investment, those involved in carpet recycling point to environmental awareness, demands from the architectural community, government programs, and the efforts of groups such as CARE. Yet they also acknowledge that the success or failure of such investments is ultimately going to be determined by old-fashioned economics-the ability to make money by turning old carpet into new products.
Unlike with most manufacturing industries, the economics of carpet recycling improve as oil prices rise. And, lucky for this industry, experts don't see a return to the days of $20-per-barrel oil any time soon. As Los Angeles Fiber's Greitzer says, "At $35 per barrel, people liked us. At $70 per barrel, we were the most popular guy at the dance."