The Problem with PET, Part II

The Problem with PET, Part II

Long-term recycling solution for polyester carpet becomes pressing with increased sales, but national director says: “The glass is half-full”

Mohawk Plastic BottlesIt has been observed throughout history: Cleaning up one mess often creates another mess.

To clean up a mess, carpet manufacturers have been recycling billions of discarded plastic bottles into polyester (PET) carpet every year. But discarded PET carpet is not recyclable. And it now accounts for 30 percent — up from 4 percent in 2007 — of the used carpet headed for landfills.

Because 35 percent of the residential carpet market is now PET, which is cheaper but not as durable as recyclable nylon carpet, carpet manufacturer Mohawk has announced Continuum – it new, proprietary PET carpet. The proprietary process results in a more durable, cleaner PET carpet, the company says.

This announcement comes on the coattails of the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) launching a national program aimed at finding products and uses, and therefore, a market that would make recycled PET carpet a viable business.

PET carpet, courtesy of Mohawk

PET carpet, courtesy of Mohawk

“Mohawk is one of the industry’s largest supporters of CARE,” says Kent Clauson, Mohawk’s vice president of brand management. “Across the industry, flooring manufacturers are passionately researching a long-term solution for PET recycling.”

CARE Executive Director Robert Peoples says:  “To win at recycling, you need two ingredients: economics that work, and outlets that can and will use the materials.  PET is a big challenge on both counts, unlike nylon.”

Since it started out about 10 years ago, CARE has overseen a national recycling effort that today diverts more than 350 million pounds of discarded carpet  from landfills annually.

Slow progress is expected

Earlier this year, Peoples says, a grant request was made for California universities to work on PET. A number of new possible uses and markets have been identified for PET, he says, but if successful, it will then take a few years to see significant pounds of polyester carpet being recycled.

Somewhat disappointing, Peoples says, is that while past success has shown that state governments are needed as stakeholders in the carpet recycling effort, no state has incorporated post-consumer containing products in its procurement process, except for Califonia under NSF 140. And only one state has ever given CARE a grant to help support its work, Peoples says.

Nonetheless, all agree that accomplishments in recycling should not be diminished because of challenges with PET.

“It is amazing to me that of the post-consumer carpet that gets recycled today, almost 30 percent goes back into new face fiber or carpet backing,” Peoples says.  “This is a huge technical accomplishment.”

The CARE network and manufacturers that include Mohawk also are working diligently to expand this effort. And the planet-friendly efforts that go into making PET carpet are significant in and of themselves, Mohawk’s Clauson says.

“Today, Mohawk leads the industry in the sustainable upcycling of PET,” he says. “Mohawk recycles more than 3 billion plastic bottles each year and turns them back into select PET carpets. That’s over 25 percent of all bottles recycled in North America. Even the bottle caps and labels are used, so nothing goes to the landfill.”

The bottom line, Peoples says, involves another observation that has been made throughout history: “It is helpful to see the glass as half-full and support efforts to grow, rather than spend energy being critical, while offering no good alternatives.” ©

Click here to read The Problem with PET, Part I

 — Nancy Kibbee is editor at www.naturalinteriors.com

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