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Journal Articles > Waste Prevention > [Carpet Take-Back: EPR American Style]

Carpet Take-Back: EPR American Style

by Bette K. Fishbein

Unlike most industrial sectors in the U.S., the carpet industry has begun voluntarily to take responsibility for its products once their useful life is over. How do these voluntary efforts compare to the mandatory extended producer responsibility requirements now prevalent throughout Western Europe and Asia?

The carpet industry, concentrated in Georgia, is a $10 billion-plus industry in the U.S. Over 3 million tons of carpet are produced every year and about 2 million tons are discarded. Carpet accounts for about 1% of municipal solid waste, by weight, and 2% by volume. Given the thousands of products in the waste stream, this is not a small amount.

Carpet is a particular problem because of the difficulties it presents for end-of-life management: It is bulky and expensive to transport, and much of the discarded carpet ends up in landfills. According to the U.S. EPA, less than 1% of discarded carpet was recycled in 1997. Minnesota, in launching its Product Stewardship Initiative in 1999, identified carpet as one of three "priority waste streams" that need to be addressed, along with paints and electronic products that contain cathode ray tubes.

Unlike most U.S. industries, which insist that managing products at end of life is a municipal responsibility, many carpet producers are acknowledging responsibility for their products at the post-consumer stage and are implementing take-back and recycling programs. It is interesting to examine these voluntary programs to see how they compare to the mandated take-back programs spreading through the industrialized countries of the world, particularly in Western Europe and Asia.

THE SPREAD OF PRODUCT TAKE-BACK IN THE UNITED STATES AND ABROAD

Around the world, makers of products are increasingly developing programs to take them back at the post-consumer stage for reuse, remanufacture, or recycling. This is due mainly to the adoption of "extended producer responsibility" (EPR) policies in the leading industrialized countries; these policies extend the responsibility of producers over the product lifecycle, particularly for take-back and proper end-of-life management. As described in my article entitled "EPR: What Does it Mean? Where is it Headed?" Pollution Prevention Review, Volume 8, Number 4 (Autumn 1998), the U.S. is unique among the industrialized countries in not having any national EPR mandates. But even in the United States, EPR is spreading. (For some additional background on EPR, see the sidebar accompanying this article.)

Individual companies in the U.S. have voluntarily implemented EPR programs when take-back and recycling are actually profitable or when they support marketing efforts. Xerox, for example, makes substantial profits by taking back and remanufacturing the office equipment it produces. And Kodak saved its single-use camera from public reprobation by taking back and recycling it. The makers of rechargeable batteries also have worked in concert to reclaim and recycle Ni-Cd batteries, but this was primarily driven by state legislation.

In the carpet industry we now see, for the first time in the U.S., many players in a single industry actively competing to develop take-back and recycling programs. Such programs are being implemented by the large nylon producers like Honeywell (formerly Allied Signal), DuPont, and BASF, as well as by the companies that make and distribute carpet, such as Collins & Aikman, Milliken, Shaw, and Interface. Most of these programs are not currently profitable, although some may become so in the future.

In Europe, where EPR began a decade ago, EPR programs are in place for sectors including autos, electronics, and graphic papers, and are most advanced for packaging. When an industry is held responsible for its products at end of life, the companies involved typically form a PRO, or producer responsibility organization. These organizations, created and operated by industry, take back and recycle products on behalf of participating companies and develop an integrated system for the industry. Examples include the packaging PROs such as DSD in Germany, Eco Emballage in France, and Fost Plus in Belgium. These PROs license their logo for a fee and use the revenues to fund the take-back/recycling systems.

The pattern developing in the U.S. carpet industry is very different. Here, the take-back programs are being used to enhance competitive advantage. While the competition is driving innovation, there is little coordination between programs and no integrated system is being developed for the industry as a whole.

WHY ARE PRODUCERS TAKING BACK PRODUCTS?

A number of factors seem to be driving the carpet take-back initiatives in the U.S.:

 

RECYCLING BY FIBER PRODUCERS

Substantial investments are being made in technologies to recycle nylon face fiber. Face fiber is the most valuable component of carpet and accounts for one-third to one-half of its weight. The remainder consists of backing, filler, and adhesives.

Sixty percent of face fiber is nylon, of which the two types used in carpet (nylon 6 and nylon 6,6) may require different recycling processes, depending on the end product. Nylon 6 is made by Honeywell and BASF and is extruded into fiber by these companies or by the carpet manufacturers. Nylon 6,6 is made by DuPont and Solutia and is sold as fiber. Currently, nylon 6 and nylon 6,6 account for 45 and 55 percent of the nylon carpet market, respectively, but the gap is narrowing. The other major face fiber materials are polyester and polypropylene, which are not economical to recycle, in part because the virgin materials are so cheap.

Honeywell: Nylon into Nylon

In November 1999, Evergreen Nylon Recycling LLC opened a large recycling facility for nylon 6 in Augusta, Georgia. This facility is a joint venture of Honeywell and DSM (Dutch State Mines Chemical Company). The plant has the capacity to depolymerize over 200 million pounds of used nylon 6 broadloom per year into caprolactam, the feedstock for new nylon 6. The resulting nylon fibers are of the same quality as those made from virgin materials. The nylon 6 made from recycled materials can be recycled indefinitely and will be marketed under the Infinity trademark.

The driver of this project is economic. Honeywell produces over one billion pounds of nylon 6 per year. The company produces two-thirds of the caprolactam it needs and buys the rest from chemical companies. Caprolactam made from reprocessed nylon 6 carpet is cheaper than the caprolactam bought on the open market. Honeywell and DSM have invested $85 million in the project and claim that recycling 200 million pounds of nylon 6 per year will reduce oil use by 700,000 barrels, energy use by 4.4 trillion Btus, and greenhouse gas emissions by 67 percent.

Ultimately, the system's economic viability will depend on recovering large amounts of used carpet. The plant has contracted to import used carpet from Europe, where new technology to mechanically sort face fiber is being put in place. Honeywell is working with retailers, dealers, waste haulers, and recyclers to build its collection network for used carpet. By 2002, it expects to have 150 suppliers in 120 metropolitan areas, up from 40 suppliers in 33 metropolitan areas in 1998.

Honeywell has also developed a handheld infrared device, called the CarPID, for identifying the composition of face fiber. Companies involved in Honeywell's collection network can rent the CarPID for $200 per month and use it to determine whether a carpet is made from nylon 6. Honeywell will take back any nylon 6 carpet, even if it is made by a competitor such as BASF.

The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI), an industry trade association, recently implemented an identification system for carpet materials, but this will not become useful until carpet manufactured today is discarded - about a decade from now. At present, Honeywell's CarPID device is playing an important role in identifying the composition of carpet manufactured before the CRI identification system became effective.

BASF: Carpet into Carpet

In 1994, BASF introduced the 6ix Again Recycling Program to handle post-consumer commercial carpet made from the company's nylon 6 fiber. Commercial carpet that meets specifications is recycled, through depolymerization, into new Nylon 6ix yarn or other products, or is disposed of properly by independent companies. BASF guarantees that no Nylon 6ix fiber recovered from carpet submitted to the program will be landfilled or incinerated. There is no fee to participants (except for shipping), and eligibility does not require that the replacement carpet be a BASF product.

Early in 1998, the company introduced the 6ix Again Expansion Program. BASF will now take back commercial carpet of any fiber or backing type made by any manufacturer, as long as the replacement carpet is a Nylon 6ix product. If a viable recycling method is available, the returned carpet is recycled. Otherwise, it is incinerated (preferably as a substitute fuel), but not landfilled. In addition to shipping costs, participants pay 40 cents per square yard to cover the costs of the program. While no quantitative data is available, BASF reports that the rate of take-back by both programs is increasing.

DuPont: Carpet into Other Products

In 1991, North America's largest nylon producer, DuPont, initiated the Partnership for Carpet Reclamation with carpet dealers, carpet mills, designers, and end users. Intended to find new ways to utilize old carpet, the program collected all commercial carpet for a fee, as long as the replacement was 100 percent nylon 6,6 from DuPont. The used carpet was recycled into new resins to be used in the automotive industry. In six years, approximately 30 million pounds (15,000 tons) were recycled through this program.

In 1997, DuPont renamed and changed the structure of its carpet recycling program. Now called the Carpet Reclamation Program, it is administered by DuPont Flooring Systems, a wholly owned subsidiary of E.I. duPont de Nemours and Co. The Carpet Reclamation Program still collects commercial carpet, but the replacement carpet no longer has to be made of DuPont fiber. Most of it still is, however, because this is mainly what DuPont Flooring distributes through its dealers. Reclaimed fiber and carpet tiles are demanufactured or recycled for use in automotive and other applications.

All of DuPont Flooring's 80 U.S. dealers participate in the program, collecting approximately 20 million pounds (10,000 tons) of carpet per year. Used commercial carpet is collected when new carpet is installed, regardless of manufacturer, fiber type, or construction. The Carpet Reclamation Program receives a fee from DuPont Flooring dealers based on the avoided cost of landfilling the used carpet - a cost ultimately passed on to the customer. The combined revenues from these fees, and from the sale of recycled materials, are used to offset the costs of the reclamation program. A basic principle is that no carpet removed by DuPont Flooring Systems will be landfilled. Materials are collected, remanufactured, and recycled as follows:

With the parent company manufacturing nylon 6,6 carpet fiber and its subsidiary engaged in selling, installing, maintaining, and reclaiming carpet, the only link in the chain in which DuPont is not involved is carpet manufacturing. DuPont claims that its Carpet Reclamation Program is the largest carpet recycling project in the world. It has not yet made a profit, but DuPont is confident that this will change. The company anticipates that its flooring systems subsidiary will eventually expand to as many as 300 facilities and that the take-back program will serve as a model for other DuPont products.

DuPont is also testing a patented depolymerization process that allows mixtures of nylon 6 and nylon 6,6 to be made into nylon 6,6 fiber. The new fiber, with up to 50 percent post-consumer recycled content, can be recycled repeatedly. DuPont has invested over $15 million in this new technology and will open a demonstration plant in Maitland, Ontario in 2000. This plant will be able to process 2 million pounds of nylon per year. If the operation is successful, a commercial plant with 10 to 20 times the capacity of the Maitland plant could be launched by 2002.

Finally, DuPont is working on mechanical methods to incorporate recycled content into its carpet fibers. Its goal is "a fully sustainable closed-loop system where every nylon carpet made will have the opportunity to be collected and reprocessed into another new high-value product."

Solutia: Waste-to-Energy

Solutia (formerly Monsanto) has a program called "Partners for Renewal." The company developed a patented technology to recycle components of nylon carpet into thermoplastic pellets for auto parts and other industrial applications. This program was not economic, and Solutia now partners with Ogden Martin and sends the carpet it takes back to waste-to-energy facilities.

 

Sidebar: Understanding EPR

Extended producer responsibility, or EPR, imposes continuing accountability on producers over the entire life cycle of their products. In practice, EPR has been used primarily to extend responsibility for products to the post-consumer stage - after they are discarded and become waste. EPR shifts responsibility for waste from government to private industry, forcing producers to internalize waste management costs in their product prices.

The concept is often implemented through product take-back programs, although producers rarely are required to physically collect discarded items themselves. In most cases, they instead contract with third parties to handle the items.

EPR got its start in 1991, when Germany - prompted by a serious landfill shortage - adopted a law making producers responsible for product packaging after consumers discard it. The law simultaneously mandated that recycling rates for many materials (including glass, plastics, steel, and paper) be substantially increased.

In response to the packaging law, German industry adopted the "Green Dot" system. Industry established a non-profit company called DSD to operate the system. DSD licenses its logo, the green dot, for a fee. Consumer product manufacturers pay DSD to place the green dot on their packages, and this represents a "recycling guarantee." The licensing fees paid by companies are used to cover the cost of collecting and recycling packaging waste throughout Germany.

The German EPR requirements for packaging initially were controversial with industry (which objected to the cost), with environmentalists (who wanted even stronger mandates), and with other European nations (who complained that Germany was interfering with their materials markets). The Green Dot program also ran into financial difficulties early on, when some producers failed to pay the required fees on time and DSD found itself facing higher-than-estimated waste management costs. Despite these difficulties, the EPR concept quickly spread.

EPR has now become institutionalized throughout much of the industrialized world. The European Union has endorsed the concept of EPR in its directive on packaging. All its member countries, which take in most of western Europe, are adopting EPR in some form. Some eastern European countries, like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, have also joined in. The policy also has spread to Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Moreover, interest in EPR has rapidly reached beyond packaging to cover products themselves, including electronics and vehicles.

The various countries that have mandated EPR have imposed somewhat different requirements, making it very complex for companies that do business multi-nationally. But efforts are now underway, particularly in Europe, to harmonize EPR laws. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) will soon release a guidance manual on EPR for its member countries that choose to implement this policy.

 

RECYCLING BY CARPET MILLS

Interface: Closing the Loop

Interface, Inc., in Atlanta, Georgia, is the fifth-largest carpet company in the world, with annual global sales of over $1 billion. It has been a leader in incorporating sustainability goals into company operations and in working toward a closed-loop flow of materials. The following quote from the company's "Sustainability Report" reflects its thinking on these issues:

Interface is redesigning its processes and products into cyclical material flows . . . We are reducing use of raw materials and working to get the most value out of the materials that we employ. This includes careful recycling of synthetic materials so that waste materials in society become valuable raw materials in industry . . . [M]anufacturers must design and create their products with components that will retain value when they return, and not just when they leave the factory.

As a result of such efforts, Interface chairman Ray Anderson was named co-chairman of the President's Council on Sustainable Development in 1997.

Interface reclaims and recycles used carpet through its Interface Americas division. In 1998, it reclaimed 4 million pounds of used carpet from sites where new carpet was being installed. Interface guarantees that no reclaimed carpet will be landfilled and pursues the following alternatives:

Interface became well known for its Evergreen lease program, launched in 1995. This was an attempt to transform a commercial product - carpet - into an ongoing service. Rather than buying the carpet itself, the customer could, through leasing, obtain the "service" of keeping space carpeted. Interface would be responsible for purchasing, maintaining, and replacing the carpet over the period of the lease, and recycling it at the end of life. The idea was to create an incentive to produce a long-lasting product requiring minimal care that would not end up in a waste disposal facility. Like product take-back, the Evergreen lease was a way to extend producer responsibility to the post-consumer stage and move manufacturing toward a closed-loop model of materials use.

The original Evergreen lease program did not succeed and very few leases were signed. The intent was to offer customers an operating lease, under which Interface retained ownership of the carpet. (This differs from a capital lease, under which ownership is transferred to the lessee.) Structuring an operating lease for carpet has presented problems. A major difficulty relates to the residual value of the carpet at the end of the lease term (a requirement of operating leases) and determining how this should be handled under accounting rules. While all problems have not yet been resolved, Interface continues to work on creating an economically viable operating lease for carpet. The company also provides capital leases for carpet through an outside leasing company, Dodd Pacific, and offers a take-back option. Ray Anderson's promotion of leasing as a mechanism to promote producer responsibility still attracts attention, but it has been far easier to introduce in other sectors for products with greater, well-defined residual value.

Interface is also designing new products for take-back and recycling. In the spring of 1999, the company launched its Solenium floor covering, which Interface describes as "resilient-textile flooring" - a new category in-between carpet and hard-surface flooring. Solenium uses 30 percent fewer raw materials than traditional carpet and is 100 percent recyclable. After reclamation, 100 percent of the product can be recycled for use in new Solenium. The company is also researching new materials, such as polymers made from plants such as corn, that can be used in carpet production without depleting nonrenewable resources. In its Déjà Vu line, Interface aims to recycle backing into backing and face fiber into face fiber.

Milliken: Refurbishing Carpet

Milliken's Earth Square program, formerly called Earthwise Ennovations, or E2, allows modular carpet tiles in commercial applications to be cleaned, retextured, repatterned, and sent back into use. After the carpet has been refurbished, Milliken will return it to the same customer or resell it to someone else if the original customer does not want it. In 1997, over 30,000 yards of material were sent back to Milliken in about 20 projects. In addition to keeping discarded carpet out of the landfill, the program claims to make refurbished carpet available at about half the price of new. A drawback is that decorative patterns can be added but not removed. As a result, pattern options are limited and carpet tiles become darker every time they are refurbished.

Milliken stresses that its carpet is "renewed," and that it thus recaptures higher value than recycled products. In 1998, the U.S. General Services Administration, the federal government's procurement arm, selected the Earth Square program to receive its first Evergreen Award, which recognizes environmentally sensitive engineering, design, products, and processes.

Collins & Aikman: Carpet into Carpet Backing

Collins & Aikman recycles face fiber and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) backing into new carpet backing. Its Infinity Initiative covers both commercial carpet and industrial flooring. The policy is "to take back all Collins & Aikman carpeting ever produced" at no fee except for shipping, the cost of which is shared. The company will also take back any other company's carpet as long as the backing is a vinyl of "similar configuration" to its own. Again, there is no fee except for the shared cost of shipping.

Collins & Aikman claims to be the only company to provide a written guarantee that a carpet will never be landfilled or incinerated. Since 1997, all reclaimed carpet and carpet tiles have been manufactured into a 100-percent recycled-content carpet backing called Environmentally Redesigned, Reused, Recycled, or ER3. The company claims that since this backing contains nylon from the face fiber of used carpet, it is more stable than traditional, all-virgin backing material. Additionally, the ER3 backing lasts longer than regular backing (it is guaranteed for 15 years) and costs the same. The company has announced that, as of the end of 1999, no virgin material will be used in its backing for carpet tiles.

Ultimately, ER3 could become the standard backing for all Collins & Aikman products. While recycling high-value nylon into low-value backing may add attributes to the backing, it does not recover as much value from used nylon as the nylon-to-nylon recycling technologies.

Shaw Industries

Shaw Industries, Inc., is the largest carpet manufacturer in North America. The company's dealer network, Shaw Contract Group, will reclaim any used carpet from customers who buy a new Shaw product and opt to have their old carpet recycled. Although customers who choose to recycle must pay the costs, Shaw points out that recycling old carpet allows them to avoid paying for disposal. Recycling still represents a net cost, however, and most customers choose disposal over recycling. Shaw assures customers who do participate in the recycling program that no returned carpet will be landfilled, and provides a recycling certificate to back up its claim.

Shaw works with a number of recyclers (including Wellman, Inc., and Star Recycling) and recycling partners (including Honeywell). It sends used nylon 6 carpet collected from customers to the Honeywell/DSM recycling facility in Augusta, Georgia. The company is an active partner in Honeywell's recycling project - as a collector of used carpet, which provides Honeywell with feedstock, and as the major user of Honeywell's recycled nylon 6 output. Shaw sends used nylon 6,6 to recyclers, which generally downcycle it into injection-molded automotive parts. Carpet backing is mainly sent to disposal facilities, although some is ground into powder and used as filler in new backing.

Shaw has developed a new backing called EcoWorx, a thermoplastic polyolefin that is an alternative to PVC. EcoWorx has no chlorine or plasticizer content, costs no more than PVC, and is 100 percent recyclable into new EcoWorx backing. Shaw intends for the product to ultimately have 100 percent recycled content, but it will be 10 to 15 years before sufficient quantities of used EcoWorx are available to meet this goal. The new backing can be used with different face fibers in both tiles and roll carpet. According to Shaw, when EcoWorx backing is combined with the company's new EcoSolution nylon face fiber, the result is "the most environmentally sophisticated and responsible carpet system available today."

 

POLICY ISSUES

It is interesting to examine some of the key EPR policy issues with respect to voluntary, as compared to mandatory, take-back programs.

Who Is the Producer?

In mandatory take-back programs, costs are imposed on "producers," so companies try very hard not to be identified as the responsible entity. Identifying the responsible entity has been a very contentious issue in mandatory EPR programs, resulting in different outcomes in different countries. For example, in the German Green Dot Program, the designated "producer" of packaging is the "filler" - that is, the brand name on the package. In other words, the company that pays the fee for take-back and recycling of packaging is the one that put its product in the package; this is not necessarily the maker of the package or the packaging material. In contrast, in the UK, responsibility is allocated among all players in the package chain. When the Ni-Cd battery take-back program was designed in the U.S., there were years of debate over whether the "producer" was the maker of the cell in the battery, the battery pack, or the product that contains the battery; a compromise was ultimately reached.

It is interesting that in the U.S. carpet industry, there has been no dispute over this issue. In fact, players at different stages in the product chain are voluntarily taking responsibility and are actually competing in developing take-back programs and new recycling technologies. The large chemical companies that produce fibers and the companies that make these fibers into carpet are not trying to shift the responsibility to each other. Rather, most of them are involved in developing their own take-back and recycling programs, and in many cases they are competing for used carpet. Of course, the U.S. programs are voluntary; the companies can charge customers for take-back or cancel the programs if the costs become too onerous.

Must Take-Back Be Free to the End User?

Charging for take-back has been a very contentious issue in programs around the world. The mandated programs in Europe generally require that take-back be free to the end user. This means that if industry wants to pass the costs of take-back and recycling on to consumers, it must be done through the purchase price or up-front fees. Japan has taken a different view and allows the imposition of fees when electronic products are brought back by consumers.

Since the U.S. carpet programs are voluntary, the companies can do what they choose, and they generally charge for take-back. Some, such as Shaw, differentiate fees so that the end-user pays more to have the carpet recycled than to have it taken back and sent to a landfill. Such a fee structure is clearly a big disincentive for recycling; customers usually choose landfilling, which is the cheaper option. It will be interesting to see if carpet recycling rates can be substantially increased with such a fee structure in place.

What Recycling Rate Must Be Achieved?

Mandated programs include targeted recycling rates that must be achieved by certain dates. For packaging in Germany, these range from 60% to 75%, based on the material. There are no such requirements in the U.S. Therefore, companies can take back carpets and send them to disposal facilities if they choose.

For marketing purposes, most companies are guaranteeing that the carpet they take back will not go to a landfill. But they usually make no assurances that it will not be incinerated, and in fact much of the carpet is going to waste-to-energy facilities. Mandated programs often define what counts toward recycling targets and may specify that waste-to-energy does not count as a recycling technology.

Taking Back Own Products?

Theoretically, EPR works best when companies take back their own products at end of life. In such a case, if a company redesigns a product to make it less wasteful and more recyclable, that company will get the economic benefits.

In practice, however, it is often not practical for companies to take back their own products. So producer responsibility organizations (PROs) have been set up by industry in many countries to manage take-back and recycling for entire product sectors, such as packaging. The PROs are paid license fees by participating companies and use the revenues from these fees to finance the take-back programs. It is important for these fees to be structured to assure that a company benefits from designing products that are less wasteful and/or more recyclable; if not, a major benefit of EPR can be lost.

Controversy has swirled around PROs because they can function as monopolies, thereby reducing competition for collection services and distorting market prices for secondary materials. They also raise antitrust concerns as they require cooperation between competing companies. However, on the plus side, a PRO acts to coordinate take-back and recycling for an entire industry.

The take-back programs for carpet in the U.S. are in marked contrast to PRO systems; they are based on competition, not cooperation. This is fostering much innovation, but it is also resulting in redundancy and inefficiency. Overall, greater cooperation among fiber and carpet companies in the collection and sorting of used carpet, and in its transport to the appropriate facilities, could greatly facilitate recycling and reduce its costs.

Should Take-Back Involve Existing or New Products?

Related to the discussion of companies taking back their own products is the policy issue of whether to focus take-back on existing products or new products. This is not an issue for packaging, which has a very short life-span. But it is a critical issue for longer lived products such as autos, electronic equipment, and carpets.

Agreement on a European Union directive for the take-back of vehicles collapsed when industry agreed to take back new cars that were designed for recycling, but balked at taking back all the old cars on the road, which would incur higher recycling costs. Similar problems have developed with respect to electronic equipment.

In the U.S., carpet take-back usually involves taking back existing carpet when new carpet is installed. Three states (Delaware, Washington, and Oregon) require this in their procurement guidelines. This means that companies take back not only their own carpet, but also that made by other producers. The link between product design and end-of-life management is therefore broken: A company will not have an incentive to design for recycling if it does not get its own carpet back at end of life.

Some companies are directing their take-back programs to recovering their own product at end of life. Interface, for example, has a take-back provision in its leasing program. Collins & Aikman, Milliken, and BASF have programs to take back their own carpet. Shaw aims for 100-percent recycled content in its EcoWorx backing, but this is contingent on getting back its own EcoWorx backing at end of life.

Policy makers in the U.S. need to consider this issue. If states want to require carpet take-back in their procurement guidelines, should it be take-back of existing carpet when new carpet is installed? Or should they require that the new carpet come with a guarantee that it will be taken back at the end of its life?

While the latter option provides incentives for redesign, it presents other problems. Carpet may last ten or more years, so take-back might not occur for a long time. In the meantime, there would be no help from industry in getting carpet out of the waste stream. This time frame also presents problems for new recycling technologies. Honeywell, for example, has a major investment in a new recycling plant. It cannot wait ten years to start getting back feedstock.

These issues need to be weighed. Perhaps a system can be developed for taking back existing carpet when new carpet is installed, while also directing the used carpet to its producer.

Are Supporting Regulations Needed?

Since cheap disposal alternatives tend to discourage recycling, policies to support recycling might include disposal bans for carpet, as well as additional disposal fees. In the residential sector, user fees could also be used. It will remain difficult to increase recycling of residential carpet in locations that provide free municipal pick-up at the curb.

 

CARPET TAKE-BACK: LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

The U.S. carpet industry is distinctive in the number of companies that have initiated take-back programs. It demonstrates a concern by producers for the post-consumer stage of their products that is a very positive development. This stands in contrast to most U.S. industries, which continue to insist that it is municipal government, not producers, who are responsible for managing the waste generated by products. Despite industry efforts, however, the recycling rate for carpets is very low. This is in large part due to the high costs of collection, transportation, sorting, and recycling relative to the cost of virgin resins.

Unlike mandatory programs, the success of voluntary programs depends on their economic viability. Most of the voluntary carpet take-back programs are not free. Purchasers of new carpet must decide what should be done with their old carpet. They are likely to continue to send their old carpet to landfills as long as disposal is cheaper than recycling. While the economics may well improve as the volume of carpet recycling increases, the success of current and future programs also depends on changes in carpet design.

A basic goal of EPR is to link end-of-life management with product design. Changes in carpet design that could facilitate carpet recycling and reduce its costs include reducing the number of materials used, using easily removed adhesives, and even making face fiber and backing from a single resin.

One barrier to redesign is that companies such as Honeywell and DuPont, which are making large investments in recycling facilities, are not carpet manufacturers. Thus, while they incur costs that result from design decisions, they cannot control those decisions. Carpet manufacturers, however, have little incentive to design for recycling as long as they are not the ones that ultimately bear its costs.

One of the motivating forces for voluntary company take-back programs is fear of impending legislation. Although there is no mandated EPR for carpet at the state or federal level in the United States, industry remains concerned because EPR policies are spreading rapidly around the world. In the US, Minnesota has sent a warning signal to the industry by pressing for producer responsibility for carpet under its product stewardship program. This program targets three priority waste streams: carpet, paint, and electronic products that contain cathode ray tubes. State landfill bans on carpet also remain a threat, as do state procurement guidelines that require take-back for purchases under state contracts.

Whether the U.S. or the European model for EPR in the end proves most effective, the growing number of voluntary take-back initiatives for carpet are clearly a positive development. They have made companies focus on the waste generated by their products and have led to the development of new recycling technologies and some design changes. Hopefully, they will ultimately lead to enough design changes and cooperative efforts to make the overall system of collection and recycling more efficient and economical.

 

Notes

1 Christopher LaGullo, Manager, Collections Marketing, Carpet Recycling, AlliedSignal Inc., Morristown, NJ; interview, April 8, 1999.

2 "The DuPont Carpet Reclamation Program."

3 Steve Bradfield, "Environmental Developments in Contract Carpet," Shaw Industries, Inc., Augusta, GA, June 1999; "Post Consumer Recycling Program Guidelines," fact sheet, Shaw Contract Group; conversation with Rudy Wofford, Senior Process Engineer, Shaw Industries, Inc., December 23, 1999.

4 Ibid.

5 Steve Bradfield, "Environmental Developments in Contract Carpet," Shaw Industries, Inc., Augusta, GA, June 1999.

 

Acknowledgment

Portions of this article were adapted from "Extended Producer Responsibility: A Materials Policy for the 21st Century," INFORM, Inc. The sections of this article entitled "Recycling by Fiber Producers" and "Recycling by Carpet Mills" copyright 2000 by INFORM, Inc. Used by permission.

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This is a preprint of an article published in Environmental Quality Management, pp. 25-36, Volume 10, Number 1, Autumn 2000
Copyright © 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Click here for a related publication, Extended Producer Responsibility: A Materials Policy for the 21st Century (published in 2000).

 
 
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