In 2010, that total was about 833 million square yards, or as the recycled carpet industry calculates it, about 3.5 billion pounds, said Georgina Sikorski, executive director of Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE).
If all the worn carpet removed from buildings in 2010 were placed in fully loaded, 53-foot-long, line haul trailers, and all the trailers plus cabins were placed end to end, the procession of trucks would have been about 1,238 miles long. On any given workday, based on a five-day workweek, the length of the line would have been about five miles.
Where does worn-out carpeting go? Most of it ends up in a landfill. Of the total discarded in 2010, only 9.6 percent was diverted and only 7.7 percent was actually recycled, Sikorski said. In other words, the line for our trailers going to the landfill in 2010 would have been about 1,119 miles long and the line diverted to other destinations would be only about 119 miles.
There are some bright spots in this discouraging recycling picture, however. The work of Shaw Industries, the carpet industry’s largest manufacturer and its biggest recycler, shows the potential for recycling across the entire industry. Shaw has developed a national network for collecting worn carpet and bringing it back to its manufacturing plants in the Dalton, Ga., area, and the company has a use for every scrap so that nothing ends up in a landfill.
Even more impressively, of the 121 million pounds of worn carpet collected by Shaw in 2010, about 85 percent was passed through a unique and highly sophisticated system that literally recycles old carpet into new carpet in a closed-loop process, considered the holy grail in sustainability circles because it eliminates the need for acquiring raw materials.
In a closed-loop recycling process, a material can be chemically induced to reassume its “virgin” state so that it can be reused over and over. Most materials cannot be recycled in this way, either because impurities were introduced during its useful life or because the recycling process weakens it. Instead, the material must be “downcycled” into a product that requires less purity or less strength. That product in turn may be downcyled for the same reason. Eventually the product reaches the end of the line and winds up in a landfill.
Shaw recycles what’s known as nylon 6 carpet fibers in a closed-loop process. The nylon 6 is “upcycled” into the material that is used to make new nylon 6 carpet fibers. This recycled material is indistinguishable from the fresh stock made from petroleum, which Shaw still purchases because it does not have the capacity to recycle all the nylon 6 that it needs.