Can I recycle my carpet?


Around 5 billion pounds (2.2 billion kilograms) of carpet goes to landfills every year. See more green living pictures.
©iStockphoto/Allkindza

The burnt-orange shag carpeting in your 1977 split-level steal of a deal house must go. You've removed the pressed wood wall coverings à la Brady Brunch, and gone are the avocado countertops and kitchen appliances. The only major update left to usher your humble abode out of the disco era and into the new millennium is the loud carpet that covers every square inch of floor space.

Once you've ripped up and removed the carpet, you're left with a mountain of useless flooring that resembles an enormous, fluffy anthill. If it seems like a scandalously large load to throw away, consider this: Each year, around 5 billion pounds (2.2 billion kilograms) of discarded carpet ends up in landfills [source: Carpet America Recovery Effort]. While carpet represents only a sliver of the total amount of waste we discard, the carpet industry wants to significantly reduce it as part of its sweeping campaign to add a glossy green sheen to its image.

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Traditional carpets that line the halls of many office buildings and homes are often frowned upon by the eco-conscious. That's because most of the soft stuff we're treading on is woven from petroleum-based synthetic fibers. Nylon and polypropylene plastics, which are made from petrochemical polymers, are the two most common components in carpeting. The backing consists of latex and PVC, which are two additional petro plastics. Furthermore, the cocktail of chemicals in certain dyes and glues have been known to emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that have potentially negative health effects.

On the manufacturing side of the process, companies including Mohawk, Shaw and Interface Americas, have made progress in reducing their carbon impact. The Carpet and Rug Institute in Dalton, Ga., for example, has developed a Green Label Plus program that identifies carpets with lower VOC emissions. Instead of petro-based fibers, some newer eco-carpet fibers contain corn products and recycled plastic bottles.

The next big hurdle for the carpet industry is tackling the afterlife of its products. Referred to as cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, industry experts are focused on converting used postconsumer carpets into new floor covering. But reaching this green landmark depends heavily on consumer behavior.

The Carpet Recycling Challenge

Recycled carpet fibers can be used to make new carpet yarns.
Recycled carpet fibers can be used to make new carpet yarns.
©iStockphoto/SDbT

In 2002, a group of carpet manufacturers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and government agencies signed the Memorandum of Understanding for Carpet Stewardship (MOU). The MOU pledged to divert 40 percent of the amount of postconsumer carpet that ends up in landfills by 2012. Millions of pounds of carpet would instead be recycled and made into new carpet and a host of other products.

But consumers can't recycle carpet with the same ease as bottles, cans and newspapers. For that reason, the 2002 MOU established the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) to accommodate carpet recycling for individuals and businesses. CARE offers information on 60 carpet recovery centers dotted around the United States that can pick up and haul away old carpeting to be recycled. However, many states, especially in the Midwest, have no such facilities.

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Since carpet recycling facilities are few and far between in certain locations, people looking to dispose of old carpet without making a trip to the landfill may have to get a little more creative. Nonprofit groups specializing in housing, such as Habitat for Humanity, may accept used carpet and carpet scraps. Some multipurpose recycling centers may also allow it.

And just like dumping at a landfill, recycling carpet isn't free. According to CARE, the fees will usually work out to between 5 and 25 cents per pound. Shaw Industries can save customers that added cost if they purchase its EcoWorx line made with recycled materials. It comes with a green guarantee that the Shaw will pick your old EcoWorx carpet and then recycle at their factories.

Though the price may be a deterrent for some, the extensive processing of postconsumer carpet explains why you have to pay. For example, at the Georgia carpet factories of Interface Americas, old carpet is first brought in, scanned for its polymer content (i.e. nylon or polypropylene) and separated accordingly [source: Discovery Channel]. The fluffy top fibers of the carpets are shaved off to be rewoven as recycled yarn. The rest of the nylon content will be sent out to other companies for use as nylon plastic for automotive parts, shingles and landscaping products [source: CARE]. This recycling procedure, which earned an Energy Globe award in 2008, can extract 9 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of nylon from 30 million pounds (13 million kilograms) of carpet [source: Fischler].

But without the effort of consumers to recycle their carpet in the first place, cradle-to-cradle carpeting might lead to a dead end. Fortunately, it'll probably become easier and cheaper to recycle carpet as demand for carpet recycling facilities and services grows.

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Sources

  • Discovery Channel. "How To Recycle Carpet." Factory Made. May 1, 2008. (April 9, 2009)http://dsc.discovery.com/videos/factory-made-how-to-recycle-carpet.html
  • Carpet America Recovery Effort. "Memorandum of Understanding for Carpet Stewardship." (April 9, 2009)http://www.carpetrecovery.org/mou.php
  • Colyer, Edwin. "Closing the Carpet Loop." TextileWorld.com. April 2005. (April 9, 2009)http://www.textileworld.com/Articles/2005/April/Features/Closing_The_Carpet_Loop.html
  • Fischler, Michelle S. "Some Just See Old Carpet. These Two See a Golden Opportunity." The New York Times. April 20, 2008. (April 9, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/20peopleli.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=carpet%20recycling&st=cse
  • Scelfo, Julie. "Don't Sweep It Under the Rug." The New York Times. March 19, 2009. (April 9, 2009)http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/03/19/garden/19greenhome.html?scp=4&sq=carpet%20recycling&st=cse
  • The Carpet and Rug Institute. "Sustainability." (April 9, 2009)http://www.carpet-rug.org/carpet-and-rug-industry/sustainability/index.cfm
  • Vaglica, Sal. "How to Recycle Your Old Carpet." This Old House. (April 9, 2009)http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/article/0,,20183292,00.html