The amount of carpeting diverted from landfills has increased only 32 percent in the past two years, after doubling between 2002-04 and again from 2004 to 2005. But the larger issue for the carpeting industry is finding more end-use plastics applications for the material they recycle.
We will not be able to recycle all this fiber back into carpet, said Frank Hurd, chairman of the Carpet America Recovery Effort. If we are going to be successful, we have to understand the needs of the plastics industry and integrate better with the plastic compounding industry.
Hurd spoke during the Global Plastics Environmental Conference of the Society of Plastics Engineers, held Feb. 26-27 in Orlando.
Currently, about 300 million pounds of carpets are diverted from landfills through the CARE program annually. But the amount of carpet diverted in 2007 was 296 million pounds just one-third of the target set by CARE, which is a joint industry-government consortium working to recycle carpets and divert them from landfills.
What's more, after the amount of carpeting diverted from landfills increased from 57 million pounds in 2002 to 225 million pounds in 2005, the growth rate slowed to 16 percent in 2006 and 13.4 percent in 2007, and 2008 growth is expected to be flat or even to show a slight decline because of the economic downturn.
We need to navigate this tough economy and develop a future strategic direction, Hurd said. We need to find more partners and users for recycled carpets. We need more outlets for recycled materials, especially since the number of CARE network locations has grown to 60 from five since the onset of the program in 2002.
One of the most promising initiatives aimed at increasing end-use plastics applications for materials recovered from carpets is the GreenWorks Center in Chatsworth, Ga. The center is a 2-year-old project of Mohawk Industries Inc., which is headquartered in nearby Calhoun.
GreenWorks has developed technology to process 100 percent of the recycled carpet the fiber, the backing and the latex and to turn about 90 percent of those materials into resins for reusable products, Frank Endrenyi, vice president of sustainable development for Mohawk, said in an interview during the GPEC conference.
This is the highest recovery rate in the industry approximately three times that of the next-best carpet recycling program, said Endrenyi. We have established the technology to produce post-consumer plastics that meet injection molded specifications of virgin materials. Our plan is to have these materials accepted for applications in automotive, furniture [and] housewares.
About 40 percent of the post-consumer carpet waste stream is nylon 6/6, 30 percent nylon, 20 percent polypropylene and 7 percent polyester.
Endrenyi knows there are challenges ahead.
We have to become more familiar with the plastics industry, he said. We know that our materials have to make the product better and have the same specification characteristics. But we can bring a fairly constant material cost because our cost of production will remain constant and the source of our material is trash.
GreenWorks has the capacity of recycling 75 million to 100 million pounds of carpet materials, but it is currently only operating at about 30 percent of that, Endrenyi said. Recycling of nylon is low yield about 25 percent.
It also has been designed so that additional centers can be built where needed. The design is portable and scalable, so similar operations can be built near recyclers to reduce fuel and transportation costs, he said.
About 75 percent of the end-use applications developed to date have been for the automotive industry, such as engine covers, wires and harnesses, the shell of transmission housings, intake manifolds and other under-the-hood parts, Endrenyi said.
We want to be more diversified, he said. The only thing holding us back is developing more applications.
Trash containers and housings for small appliances and office furniture system applications are some of the other products Mohawk is working to develop. Several compounders have approved our material and have marketed it to end users, Endrenyi said.
The availability of carpet is there, he said. But we have to answer questions about sustainability, how much we can produce, and consistency and the process to do that can be 9-18 months depending on the application.
Much of the initial end-use application work has focused on low-end areas where there is a minimal amount of conversion costs. There aren't enough technologies developed to turn these materials into a more valuable end-use product, said Endrenyi. We really have to get into these higher-end-use applications to give us more money per pound and to cover the costs of operation.
As part of that process, he said, Mohawk was looking to develop more homogenous carpet material to make recycling easier. If you make carpet out of 100 percent nylon, it would reduce the cost of recycling dramatically and not need sophisticated technologies for recycling.