Having to deal with old carpets or rugs may not seem like a big deal – after all, how often do you replace them in your home? However, while houses may keep carpeting for many years, businesses have far greater footfall, leading to more wear, and thus more carpeting products, from carpet tiles to tack strips, making their way to landfill.
In fact, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest figures, the United States generated 3.4 million tons of carpet, carpet tile, rug waste, and other floor coverings in 2018. What’s more, only 310,000 tons of this was recycled, with the vast majority (2,460,000 tons) being sent to landfill. The bulk of the remaining 600,000 tons of carpet and rug waste was incinerated.
These figures aren’t too surprising considering how hard solid waste such as carpets can be to dispose of appropriately and sustainably. Carpet fibers are frequently made of multiple materials, complex weaves, feature synthetic carpet paddings, and involve a range of chemical dies and treatments – you can’t just take it to regular recycling facilities or dispose of it in conventional waste streams.
However, carpet recycling and responsible disposal that improve sustainability for old carpets and other textiles are possible. This guide will explain what makes carpets and rugs so hard to recycle, the negative impacts that improper disposal can have, some solutions to carpet disposal, how carpet recycling works, and where those recycled carpets and rugs end up.
What Are Carpets and Rugs Made Of?
Carpet typically consists of three layers:
- the face fiber, which is the part we walk on, consisting of thousands of small threads.
- the primary backing, which holds the face fibers together.
- the secondary backing, which covers the primary backing, normally with glue.
All of these layers are almost always made of plastic in the United States. Speaking to the New York Times back in 2009, Jeffrey L. Carrier of the Carpet and Rug Institute said that “Between 92 and 94 percent of all carpeting used in people’s homes today is made from plastic,” jumping up to “Basically 100 percent” when it comes to commercial properties.
The outer layer, the one you walk on, is typically made of synthetic fibers like nylon, polypropylene, polyester, and Acrylic. Nylon is most common, but all these plastic-based fibers offer the same advantage for the carpet industry and consumers: they’re cheap.
Not only are they cheap, but synthetic textiles also tend to be relatively hardwearing, able to hold color and form, and comfortable underfoot. Natural fibers, such as wool, on the other hand, are quite expensive, making them less popular despite their long lifespans, superior feel, and higher quality.
The backing of the carpet (both primary and secondary) is also plastic but tends to be made from mixed materials, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polypropylene (PP).
The Negative Environmental Impact of Carpet Waste
The negative environmental impact of carpet waste is similar to that of any other plastic. First, the 2,460,000 tons that get sent to landfills are extremely slow to break down, sitting there for possibly hundreds of years while contributing to emissions, and potentially leaching dangerous chemicals into the ground and water. If not taking up landfill space, they are commonly incinerated, where they release greenhouse emissions as well as potentially toxic pollutants.
If they aren’t taken into legitimate waste streams at all, then synthetic fibers can quickly contribute to the mounting problem of microplastics, which are poisoning every step of the food chain.
What to Do with Old Carpets and Rugs?
If you find yourself having to dispose of an old carpet or rugs, there are a few possibilities to minimize its environmental impact and maximize its chances of staying in the economy. First, consider whether your old carpet can be reused. If it is being pulled up as part of a remodeling, for example, it may still have many years of life left in it. Some manufacturers offer take-back programs for old carpet to be refurbished for a secondary market.
However, due to the low quality of many synthetic types of carpet today, the reuse of post-consumer carpet is not as practical as with other commodities. Therefore, your best option to avoid landfills and incineration is recycling. While recycling carpet may not be as simple as other plastics, there are a few options:
First, check whether your local government runs a recycling program or disposal site for carpets and rugs. Look for curbside pickups and carpet recycling drop off points, which are far more likely.
Next, look for private waste management companies that can handle carpet recycling. This is perfect if you want more control over where your carpet waste ends up, which is especially important for businesses looking to enter the sustainable economy.
Finally, consider contacting your new carpet retailer. If a store is dropping off a new carpet, they may offer a collection and disposal service for your old carpets. Be sure to check what is happening to it, however, since there is no guarantee of recycling.
How to Recycle Carpet and Rugs?
As mentioned, carpets and rugs are made from multiple materials and complex fibers, often treated with dyes and chemicals before being glued together. All of this makes for an extremely difficult, and cost-inefficient, recycling process.
When a carpet is recycled, it is first sorted by using an infrared light spectrometer to identify the different materials. The carpet is then separated, by either cutting the backing from the face or being shredded and washed.
The individual materials, now separated, are then either further processed or sent to specialist plants. Polypropylene, for example, can be melted down into pellets and sent to other companies; nylon 6 face-fibers can be turned into new carpeting, while other plastics are downcycled into low-grade plastics.
The two major pinch points of carpet recycling today are the mix of materials and the inefficient collection of post-consumer carpets. The former can be addressed in part with single-material products, although this isn’t very practical with carpeting. The latter issue is one that can be tackled with better sorting practices, more widely available collection points, and takeback initiatives from the textile industry.
Items Produced Using Reused Rugs
The reclamation of carpeting textiles is useful for a variety of different products. By far the most common materials made from recycled rugs and carpets are engineered resins, which are used for everything from car parts to traffic signs. Additionally, some carpet recycling leads to new products for fronting and backing. However, this is far less common than engineered resins.
As mentioned, the cost of separating and processing has traditionally stopped carpet recycling from being a viable option for many businesses. However, with the rising price of virgin resources, there could be more demand for carpet recycling in the years to come, with the hope that pricing will come down for recycling and the industry can become more sustainable and circular.
To learn more about sustainable waste management and recycling for your business, get in touch with one of our expert TRUE advisors at RTS. To read more tips and get more information on recycling, subscribe to the RTS blog.