Turning a Recycling Quandary into a Reuse Opportunity

Mikhail Davis

Many people consider InterfaceFLOR to be the expert in carpet recycling, maybe even “recycling nerds” if they’re feeling a little comedic. And while ReEntry® 2.0 kept over 25 million pounds of old carpet and carpet scrap out of the landfill in 2011 (and 253M pounds since 1995), our system is certainly not perfect. This winter, a partnership with one of the national experts in building product reuse has given us a new tool to tackle tough projects for which our recycling system has had no good solution. The pilot project, working with Nathan Benjamin, Founder of PlanetReuse, has already repurposed more old carpet tile in the first quarter of 2012 than we did in all of 2011.

The Challenge

More than 95% of our US products are 100% recyclable back into new carpet tiles through ReEntry 2.0. But it is also a fact of life at Interface that we continually strive for improvement, so 95% is not good enough. What is that other 5% anyway? The answer is that we manufacture one backing type, a polyurethane-based cushioned tile (NexStep), and import another (bitumen-based Graphlar from our factory in Holland) that have a very loyal customer base, but few end-of-life options beyond waste-to-energy conversion (which we consider a last resort, consistent with the EPA’s Solid Waste Hierarchy).

Polyurethane-backed tiles are inherently unrecyclable (you can’t re-melt this plastic), and the best that can currently be done is to shred them up and either use them to soak up spills or glue them back together as carpet padding (a classic case of “downcycling” to less valuable products in either case).

Interface_RecyclingBitumen dominates the carpet tile market in Europe, where we recently created the first closed-loop system for this backing, but it is rare enough in the US that no infrastructure exists to reclaim it other than waste-to-energy. We’re not going to ship it back to Europe for cost and environmental reasons and experiments recycling it using technology designed for other materials, including asphalt roofing shingles, have not been successful so far.

Exploring Reuse

Reuse has always been part of our ReEntry 2.0 system (about 140,000 pounds were repurposed in 2011), but it was mostly done on a one-off basis where opportunities to repurpose carpet were seized by motivated local salespeople or local charities and all the logistics happened to line up. Once old carpet tile is pulled up, there is always a very short window in which the building owner will hold it, so we need to have the logistics for donation or recycling come together very quickly.

What PlanetReuse adds is access to the national community of local building product reuse stores, which has revealed a very interesting fact to us: there exists a sizable aftermarket nationally for used carpet tile for use in multipurpose areas like entryways, basements and garages.

Successful projects in our pilot with PlanetReuse include moving several full truckloads of old competitor polyurethane tile into reuse stores in Denver and Kansas City, where it is selling well. It also turns out that the durable bitumen-backed Graphlar tiles, even after being used in a retail setting, are still sought after by homeowners for use in entryways and garages.

carpet_fiberWhile our priority for our recyclable products is getting the materials back, our pilot has also managed to find new homes from some of our recyclable carpet tile in local reuse stores in Missouri and Nebraska where transportation back to our recycling plant in Georgia proved cost prohibitive and the tile was still in good condition.

The pilot has also revealed that our focus on product durability and glue-free installation with TacTiles makes

our product ideally suited to many reuse scenarios; broadloom or heavily glued tiles are usually too contaminated after removal to be re-sold. From an environmental perspective, it’s a clear win for an old carpet tile to remain a carpet tile as long as possible before sending it to be recycled.

The Future

The next challenge will be to work with the network of reuse stores to get tiles back after their second life by creating incentives for customers to bring them back to the stores for reclamation or recycling (we still won’t want our product going to the landfill). Feedback from stores on this idea during the pilot has been unanimously enthusiastic. You never know, we might just have the beginnings of a national network of local recycling drop-off locations for carpet tile.

And that’s just the kind of thing that gets a bunch of carpet recycling nerds like us really excited.

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