Recyclable Flooring

Colleges and universities want to recycle old flooring materials torn out during renovations. But for the vast majority of schools, the infrastructure required to recycle flooring doesn’t exist.

It isn’t the fault of the schools. Many, if not most, employ coordinators with staffs to look after a range of sustainable construction and renovation issues including recycling.

“The college and university sector has always been ahead of the recycling curve,” said Kate Krebs, a spokesperson for the National Recycling Coalition (NRC) in Washington, DC. “Recycling was becoming institutionalized on campuses 20 years ago. Today, there are new titles like that of sustainability director handling recycling and moving into procurement and design work to ensure the use of sustainable materials.”

Krebs adds that the NRC’s College and University Recycling Council (CURC) has become a powerful voice arguing in favor of sustainable policies on campus.

While college and university sustainability directors may want to recycle old flooring, flooring, by and large, simply is not recyclable, says Bill Clossin, general manager, education markets, with Dalton, GA-based Tandus, a manufacturer of many kinds of commercial flooring.

How can that be? Almost all flooring contains materials commonly associated with recycling. There is carpet with easily recyclable nylon tufts and backing. Linoleum is a mix of natural ingredients, including linseed oil and cork shavings. What about wood and wood laminate products? Stone floors including granite and terrazzo probably make good recycling candidates. Then there are relatively new flooring products especially suited to today’s recycling era: cork and bamboo.

Components and Materials

Of course, some flooring products don’t lend themselves to recycling. Vinyl sheet and vinyl composition tile (VCT) have vinyl components that might be recycled, but experts say that separating the vinyl from the other components has proven more expensive than the potential savings.

While it seems logical that most flooring materials can be recycled, with the notable exception of carpet, most old flooring is not recycled.

“For a product to be recycled, there has to be an established recycling program in place,” Clossin said. “Everyone knows that newspaper is recyclable. But if there is no recycling center nearby that handles newspapers, you won’t drive 100 miles to drop off a few pounds of newspapers. You’ll throw them in the landfill, and they won’t be recycled.”

What about linoleum and stone? Both are natural products used to make flooring. “I’m not aware of any stone flooring products that are recycled,” Clossin said. “I suppose it can be done. But is there a process available? I’m not aware of one.

“As for linoleum — while it is promoted as natural, it doesn’t have an established recycling path.

“Asking whether or not a product, say linoleum, can be recycled is not the right question. Sure, linoleum can be recycled, and, sure, I can get a date with Christie Brinkley. But neither of these scenarios is likely. The right question to ask is: what program exists to recycle this product?”

Carpet’s Established Recycling Path

While carpet is not universally recyclable, it is frequently recyclable, thanks to efforts made by the carpet industry. “The industry is to be commended,” Clossin said. “It has taken carpet recycling pretty far along since 2002.”

The growth of carpet recycling has come as the result of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between the carpet industry and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2002. The agreement committed industry and government to the goal of keeping old carpet out of landfills and incinerators. The organization established to carry out this work is a joint industry/government undertaking called the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE).

In 2002, according to carpet industry estimates, approximately 3.8 percent of the total discarded carpet in the U.S. flowed into a recycling program. In 2008, the rate is expected to reach 11 percent. By 2012, between 20 and 25 percent of discarded carpet is expected to be recycled.

At 11 percent, the percentage of carpet that is recycled remains small, but it is growing because the carpet industry is establishing a system that makes carpet recycling economical.

Since 2002, CARE has also expanded the collection network for post consumer carpet from five sites to 37 sites — a notable expansion perhaps, but the carpet recycling network remains unavailable to many colleges and universities that would like to use it.

“I hate to admit it, but we throw carpet out,” said Mary Jensen, the coordinator for sustainability and recycling at Keene State College in Keene, NH, and chair of the College and University Recycling Council for the National Recycling Coalition (CURC). “We use carpet with recycled content here, mostly carpet tiles. But the recycling logistics don’t work for us when carpet wears out, and we end up throwing it away.”

Jensen’s dilemma isn’t unusual. Lin King, the program manager for the R4 Recycling Program at the University of California, Davis, has the same problem with carpet. “Our vendor has in the past recommended that we bring in roll-off trailers to hold carpet torn out during a replacement project,” King said. “We did that thinking that it would be recycled. But it was taken to a waste-to-energy plant and burned instead. They called it recycling, but to me, recycling means being put back into a carpet-making process.”

When he investigated, King found that no recycling plants were operating within an economical shipping distance. As far as he is concerned, carpet is not a recyclable flooring material in Davis, CA.

East Coast Opportunity

Carpet is recyclable on the other side of the country, in Dalton, GA, the home of many carpet manufacturers. Post-consumer carpet that can be shipped economically to Dalton is chopped in small pieces, heated and made into pellets. Then it is extruded into long ropes, which are fed into a machine called a calender, which flattens out the extruded rope and produces backing for new carpet.

While it may seem surprising that the nylon fibers aren’t re-used in making carpet tufts, it is a young process, according to Clossin. “Today, you can get nylon fibers with a small percentage of recycled content, but you can only use them in a certain percentage of the total carpet fibers because of concerns about performance,” he said.

People talk so much about recycling today that it is surprising to learn that such a small amount of flooring is actually recycled. But a closer look at what has to happen for products — such as carpet — to be recycled indicates just how difficult the process can be. In the case of carpet, as well as other recyclable products, collection networks must be built to transport post-consumer goods economically. Scientists have to figure out how to do it. Engineers must build new plants to carry out the recycling process. And, of course, there must ultimately be a market willing to buy the products made of recycled materials.