Cutting Carpet Waste

Four point six billion pounds a year . . . that's the heavy weight of post-consumer carpet waste that the U.S. generates in a year, according to Dr. Howard Elder, director of Research and Environmental Affairs for J&J industries. Where does all this material go? Until recently, the garbage heap was the only answer. Lately, however, America's dustbin seems crowded.

"Carpet represents two percent of what is in landfills today," reports Alison Woolford, market segment manager, Antron Carpet Fiber. "That number may not seem huge, but in fact it is staggering." The carpet industry has taken the initiative, working to keep its products out of the landfill. How are they achieving this goal, what does it mean to your university and students, and what are the other sustainable flooring choices?

While no one argues with the logic of recycling and using sustainable products, the economics remain another story. "Purchasing 'sustainable' products costs about five percent more than a standard product," says Sharon Folliard, vice president, Design and Development, Johnsonite. "Right now, the cost to landfill is the same as recycling, so it's a wash for the end-user."

That, however, may change. As the number of landfills shrinks, the price of using them could increase. Eventually, landfills may refuse to take carpet or state and local governments may ban such bulky items from them. In an effort to remain good product stewards, the Carpet & Rug Institute, in a joint effort with government, started Carpet America Recovery Effort or CARE. Its goal: divert 40 percent of post-consumer carpet from the landfill by 2012. Initially spearheaded to stave off legislation, this action is sure to please environmentally conscious students as well. "Sustainability is often driven by students and student councils who want as much recycled as possible," says Woolford. "When they find out about the carpet situation, they are appalled." Others agree. "The entire 'green' movement is being driven by the younger generation," says Folliard. "Architects and designers push the agenda, but college students are real leaders in the area."

Midnight Train to Georgia

In answer, many colleges are now using carpet reclamation programs. For example, Antron Carpet Fibers' dealer distribution network installs new product, while taking old carpet back and storing it. When the dealer's container is full, the carpet is sent by rail to Calhoon, Ga., where it is hand-separated and sorted by fiber type. "We then recycle different materials into different things," reports Woolford. "Anything, from carpet pads to auto products to erosion barriers, can be made from old carpet."

While this fulfills the requirement of keeping carpet out of landfills, it has its downside. The energy required to get the materials back to Georgia makes a significant environmental impact. It also makes a financial impact. "Right now, this is a losing venture for us," admits Woolford. "We would like to build another center on the West Coast to help overcome these challenges."

A problem this big demands a multifaceted approach," comments Dr. Elder. "You don't want to spend two barrels of oil to reclaim one." One way to re-use carpet locally is to burn it for energy. "This is acceptable in Europe," explains Elder. "But I don't know if it will catch on here. People think the process will pollute the air, and while that's not necessarily so, if you think it's the truth, then it's the truth."

The idea of burning carpet, however, just received a huge boost from the Federal Government. In December, 2003, Congress appropriated a $300,000 grant for the study of carpet as an alternative fuel source for cement kilns. According to CARE, burning carpet in this situation is cleaner and less expensive than the usual coal fuel. Experts calculate that one cement kiln could burn some 48 tons of carpet a day.

The Hard Line

More than 50 percent of the floors in new campus buildings are carpet, according the Antron's Woolford, but what about those other spaces? What is the environmental impact of resilient flooring options? "There is not a program today to reclaim used VCT or other resilients," says Brian Saker, commercial marketing manager for flooring, Armstrong World Industries. "But these types of flooring are not replaced at anywhere near the rate of carpet." Saker reports that carpet is usually replaced every 11 years, while VCT can last 25. Linoleum can last up to 40 years.

When examining the "green-ness" of flooring options, Johnsonite's Folliard suggests looking at what she calls the "triple bottom line."

"There is the environmental impact of the actual product and its manufacturing. The social aspect of the product, for instance - is it safe to use and manufacture; does it add to a building's safety; and finally, how about the economic return on investment?"

"Being green may not seem financially feasible at first glance," Folliard continues, "but when you look at the big picture, there might not be such a long wait for the payback."

And with today's students demanding that their schools get on board, the wait may be even shorter.