Recycling What’s Underfoot

The EPA estimates that more than four billion pounds of disposed carpeting ends up in landfills every year, which is about two percent of all municipal solid waste. And most flooring sold in the U.S. is carpet. Carpets comprise 60 percent of the U.S. flooring market, with 11 billion sq. ft. sold per year. Of that, less than five percent is recycled, and less than one percent is recycled in a closed loop system.

And while recycling carpeting has taken center stage in light of landfill concerns, this process is proving problematic for environment and human health.

While the environmental and human health concerns surrounding carpet recycling and disposal are paramount, another key issue facing the recycling of carpet is the cost effectiveness for recycling facilities, as well as the overall difficulty of recycling carpet.

According to the EPA, certain fiber types, such as nylon, can be collected and recycled profitably, but others cannot be easily repurposed. Raw nylon is expensive so recycling it is a profitable option, especially considering the amount of products it can be used for, such as carpet tiles, insulation, carpet padding, other flooring materials, and various fabrics. However, challenges still exist in recycling polyester as it cannot be used to produce as many different post-consumer products as other materials like nylon. Polyester carpet recycling also faces competition from water bottle recycling, which provides a high volume of post-consumer polyester to recyclers at a low cost.

Also traditional carpeting is made of several different materials that must be taken apart before processing, making it difficult to recycle. In fact, the bulk of recycling carpet means separating layers of materials bound together by high-temperature cured latex, which is both time consuming and expensive.

“Recycled post-consumer resin is approximately twice the price of virgin plastic resin,” said Frank Killoran, director of circular solutions at Rubicon Global. “That combination of reduced demand for post-consumer resin and low rebate prices are probably some of the worst business conditions that the carpet recycling industry has seen in some time.”

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