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01.13.2011
Carpet Recycling Offers a Second Life for Rugs
More than one billion pounds of post-consumer carpet diverted from landfills since 2002
Recycled carpet fibers fighting erosion.
Courtesy Geohay

Carpet-industry members are ramping up efforts to improve material recovery programs across the U.S., as a decade-old national agreement signed by stakeholders, federal, state, local government agencies, and nonprofit organizations is about to expire.

Launched in 2002 as an industry-government effort to reduce carpet waste, the Memorandum of Understanding for Carpet Stewardship (MOU) will be renegotiated in time to reach an updated agreement by 2012.

“We’ve learned so much about carpet recycling in the last ten years,” said Jeremy Stroop, operations manager for the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), the nonprofit organization launched to help carry out the MOU’s goals. The organization claims to have diverted more than 1 billion pounds of post-consumer carpet from landfills since its inception.

One challenge facing the industry is the disparity of carpet recycling between the country’s regions. A recent seminar offered by Seattle Public Utilities and CARE underscored the gap—more than 160 million pounds are recycled each year in the Southeast, where much of the industry is based, in contrast to the 20 million pounds recycled in the Pacific Northwest or the 80 million recycled in the Pacific Southwest.

Geohay installation prevents erosion.Carpet recycling has made great advances in the past decade.

New legislation may close the gap. In October, California became the first state to mandate carpet recycling when it signed into law the AB 2398 Carpet Stewardship Bill, incentivizing reuse by rewarding entrepreneurs who create commercial goods from post-consumer carpet. The bill will generate revenue through an assessment of 5 cents per square yard of carpet sold in California, and requires manufacturers to develop a stewardship plan with the state.

Encouraging product innovations that use recycled carpet will give the industry its greatest boost, allowing recovery programs to be not only environmentally sound but also economically sustainable. “The biggest challenge that we have is market outlets. Unless there are products for the material to go into, there’s no point in collecting it,” said Stroop. “It’s a double challenge: we have to make sure it’s economically viable, and also that it works well. The technology has to catch up with research and development.”

In states like South Carolina, where carpet recycling is more popular, companies are already finding success with recycled carpet products. Leigh Fibers, an established supplier of reprocessed materials, recently announced a new venture dedicated to diverting carpet from landfills and turning it into pellets used in products like injection-molded plastics and reinforced concrete. GeoHay, another South Carolina company, became a key player in the Deepwater Horizon cleanup effort when its recycled carpet bales were used to absorb spilled oil, and several states have already specified the use of GeoHay as an erosion control device. Company representative Kellyn Hargett said GeoHay is thinking of establishing a manufacturing plant in Texas, so that more consumers can take advantage of LEED points for regionally produced materials.

Though new products using recycled carpet are cropping up each year, the carpet industry itself is still the largest user of post-consumer recycled material. Stroop said that convincing architects and designers to specify carpet recycling in a project’s initial bidding phase would go a long way toward making sure it gets reused. “If they put it in their initial bid, it makes it a lot easier for the collectors to make a reclamation happen at the end of the carpet’s lifetime.”

Jennifer K. Gorsche