It’s rare to see anyone choose to throw away a plastic bottle if a recycling bin is nearby. Unfortunately, it’s still common to see carpet waiting curbside for a trip to the landfill. Few Americans know how to recycle carpet but many are starting to learn.
At their core, the synthetic fibers that make up the majority of carpets are plastics, and the components of these fibers are just as reusable as those in a soda bottle — in many cases, even more so. With this in mind, carpet recycling should be as common as plastics recycling.
Indeed, the interest in recycling carpet stems from the chemical compounds that make up the carpet fibers. According to Russ DeLozier, manager of materials reclamation at Shaw Floors in Dalton, Ga., the primary compound in carpet fiber, as with most plastics, is hydrocarbon, which is commonly drawn from fossil fuels.
“Hydrocarbons are limited resources,” he says. “The truth is we should recycle any limited resource.”
What does it become?
For DeLozier, the goal of recycling carpet is for his company to beget more carpet. The benefit is twofold: manufacturers don’t have to turn to virgin materials to create more carpet, and all the old carpet, with its reusable hydrocarbons, doesn’t end up going to waste.
“This material will not degrade in the landfill,” says Georgina Sikorski, executive director of Carpet America Recovery Effort, an organization dedicated to diverting carpets from landfills and increase the recycling and reuse of carpets. “So it really helps us reduce the amount of space we are taking up for landfills.”
When discussing what discarded carpet can become, Sikorski tells people to look under the hood of their car. “Millions and millions of pounds of carpet are turned back into the plastic parts that are used in automobiles.”
Carpets to cars
What’s the connection between carpet and cars? Nylon. Prized for its durability, nylon is one of the most popular fibers in the carpet market, and that same durability makes it an important component of automobiles.
Eric Nelson, vice president of strategic alliances at Interface Americas and the head of its ReEntry carpet recycling program, says this is because nylon is a polymer with a higher melt temperature than other plastics, such as polyester. Its resiliency also makes nylon carpets king when it comes to recycling old carpet into new carpet as well.
“[Nylon] makes a much tougher carpet fiber,” Nelson says, “so when you take it through a recycling process, you’re able to recover a lot more value — the heat and everything else that happens through recycling does not degrade the nylon like it will degrade a polyester.”
It also means age isn’t a problem when it comes to recycling carpet. “Nylon is a plastic and it doesn’t wear out,” Sikorski says. “We say it uglies out before it wears out, and we’d love to have it back — whether it’s 30 years old or not.”
What should consumers do with old carpet?
Consumers have the easiest load when it comes to recycling. For most, DeLozier says, the retailer will take care of everything (just make sure to ask where your old carpet will go after the installer takes it away).
Do-it-yourselfers have it slightly tougher, as they will have to determine where the nearest carpet recycling facility is. A visit to Carpet America Recovery Effort’s website is the easiest way to find these facilities; the site has a map of the U.S. with carpet collection centers listed by state.
Although not everyone across America has easy access to a carpet collection agency, Sikorski points out that in terms of population, most Americans have easy access to a carpet recovery facility.