Open the hood of your car and you might be surprised to learn those automotive parts came from recycled carpet. Instead of padding a landfill, carpet also provided erosion control along the Gulf Coast following the BP oil slick.

Carpet has been recycled for nearly 20 years in the U.S. Still, it’s not as convenient as leaving a bin of recycled aluminum and paper at the curb or dropping it in a designated dumpster.

The heavy floor covering with its petroleum-based components must be transported to recycling facilities, specially designed for the purpose. It can be a pricey proposition, which is why recycling rates remain low.

“While most components that make up carpet are recyclable or reusable, only about 4 percent of waste carpet currently gets handled in these ways,” according to the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), which oversees a major nationwide carpet diversion and recycling effort. It involves the carpet industry, government agencies and entrepreneurs.

CARE has seen a growing number of businesses handling post-consumer carpet over the past few years.

More than 100 carpet reclamation sites are listed on CARE’s website, www.carpetrecovery.org. The majority are in the Southeast — where the largest carpet manufacturers are located — and Texas and California.

In many areas of the country, especially rural ones, it’s still cheaper to ditch a carpet in a landfill than recycle it. But if you live in a large metro area, where landfill space is at a premium, it becomes cost-effective for businesses to recycle carpet, says Georgina Sikorski, CARE’s executive director.

Depending on the recycler, they may allow consumers to drop off their used carpet, Sikorski says. Recyclers, who set their own rates, may also have a preference for a certain type of carpet, she says.

Some only accept from commercial clients. Consumers should inquire at the sale whether their retailer or dealer has a take-back program to transport used carpets to a collector or processor, she says. The cost of recycling is generally built into the price tag, Sikorski adds.

CARE members have increased carpet diversion and recycling 10 percent each year, a trend Sikorski expects to continue. The majority of carpet collected for diversion is recycled. Some is burned as waste-to-energy.

Carpet to be recycledRecycling involves identifying and grouping carpet by its component fiber, mostly nylon and plastic, she says. Next the carpet is run through either a shredding or shearing machine to separate the carpet layers. Further processing is required to mold plastic into other products, such as automobile parts. The fiber also can be reused, say for new carpet or carpet cushions, Sikorski explains.

Engineered resins make up more than half of the products produced last year by carpet recyclers associated with CARE, according to its 2010 annual report. One-third went into new carpet as either carpet fiber or backing, the report says.

Recycled content becomes more valuable when oil prices rise, affecting the price of virgin or new material, Sikorski says.

The carpet industry seems to realize that if it doesn’t voluntarily take responsibility for disposal of their products, government mandates might force them to. A few states are already taking the lead.

On July 1, California became first state requiring an extra fee of 5 cents a square yard for carpet sold or shipped into the state. Revenue from the after-tax line item will be used to raise awareness about recycling and reward entrepreneurs who recycle carpet and produce marketable products from it, CARE reports.

“I anticipate we’ll see an increase in California recycling,” Sikorski says. But she adds that it’s too early to tell.

Carpet manufacturers and researchers continue to look for ways to make carpet without petroleum-based materials. The challenge is to find materials that are going to perform as well as the original materials, she says.

In addition to CARE’s website, you can also find carpet recyclers near you at www.earth911.com.

Know more about recycling old carpet? Leave us a note in the comments below.

Photo: Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMA Press

See also:

How to recycle carpet