How does a group of interested parties move from defining an issue, in this case, tons of carpet discarded in landfills, to growing viable businesses and recovering hundreds of millions of pounds of postconsumer carpet every year across the United States? Through leadership, a strong vision and mission, collaboration among stakeholders and a market-based approach to the opportunity.
Enter the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), Dalton, Ga., which began more than a decade ago and now has more than 450 members, including entrepreneurs, government representatives, retailers, carpet collectors and processors, nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives, academics and other interested parties.
Since the group’s inception, CARE members have salvaged more than 2.7 billion pounds of carpet from landfill; in 2012 alone, members diverted 351 million pounds of carpet and employed more than 1,300 people nationwide. Postconsumer carpet (PCC) is recycled back into carpet-face fiber and carpet-tile backing, and recycled PCC can be found in hundreds of consumer products.
CARE serves as the resource for education, networking and outreach among its members. The CARE website, www.carpetrecovery.org, contains a wealth of information on how to recycle carpet, recycling technologies, new products, reclamation member locations and services provided and, most importantly, results achieved over the years.
Through education and outreach, CARE members raise awareness among consumers and retailers on the availability and importance of PCC recycling. Recently, CCA Global, the largest carpet retailer network in the United States, with headquarters in St. Louis, increased its commitment to carpet recycling and CARE. CCA Global invited CARE to participate in its annual meeting, educating thousands of members on the importance of reducing their environmental footprint through carpet recycling.
Recycling Carpet from C&D
Perhaps you have seen PCC piling up on some jobs and wondered what happens to this potentially valuable commodity? How can you help your customers by recycling carpet? Here are some simple steps you can take to keep carpet out of the landfill:
- Contact a CARE reclamation partner in your area before demolition begins. At CARE’s website, click on the U.S. map in the upper right-hand corner and enter your zip code to find a CARE partner in your area.
- If possible, try not to commingle the PCC with other demolition materials. This can be done if you and the CARE partner work together to get the carpet out of the site prior to removing other building materials.
- Depending on the size of the job, your CARE partner may arrange to have a container or truck available on site, or to have the carpet delivered to the partner’s recycling facility.
California Carpet Stewardship
In 2011, CARE embraced a new challenge and was named the carpet stewardship organization (CSO) for the California Carpet Stewardship program, the first of its kind in the U.S. As the CSO, CARE developed the California Carpet Stewardship Plan, detailing the goals, financial mechanisms, outreach, auditing and reporting for the program.
CARE recently presented its first report to the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), describing results from its first seven quarters of operation from July 2011 through March 2013. Highlights of this groundbreaking program include:
- 80 carpet manufacturers are participating in the CARE Plan, reporting 173 million square yards of carpet sold in California;
- More than 600 million pounds of carpet destined to be discarded;
- 184 million pounds of carpet recovered from California landfills; and
- Nearly 10 percent, or about 60 million pounds, recycled back into carpet and other consumer products.
As you can imagine, we learned a great deal along the way. While carpet recycling is an emerging business, it is not for the faint of heart. The California program attracted new collection and processing businesses in California and also presented startup and operational issues for several participants. CARE and CalRecycle worked tirelessly to educate the marketplace, including retailers, processors and NGO representatives, resolving issues along the way and uncovering new opportunities for expanding the accessibility of carpet recycling in California.
For example, CARE undertook a pilot project with Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC) Environmental Services Joint Powers Authority (ESJPA), CalRecycle, local governments and carpet recyclers in the state of California. The goal of the pilot project was to determine a business model for consumers to have reasonably convenient opportunities in each county to manage their PCC. Six rural counties were chosen to participate in the pilot project.
The rural pilot program achieved successful results in its first year of operation and will be expanded to include an additional four counties in the next year.
While the initial results of the California Carpet Stewardship program have been encouraging, we recognize that there is a great deal more that can be done. CARE plans to implement a dynamic approach to provide incentives for total landfill diversion, increased recycled output yields and market development of new products and processes. CARE plans to hire a California program manager to accelerate growth of recycled output, and an enhanced incentive program is being rolled out.
The Next Steps
The most valuable component of PCC is carpet fiber, especially nylon carpet fiber. Historically, nylon has enjoyed a niche in markets where the properties find wide applications. Through the efforts of CARE, recycled nylon finds wide acceptance with growing demand.
CARE members expect continued growth in the demand for nylon carpet fiber. Today, approximately 15 percent of recycled nylon PCC goes back into face fiber (a significant technical accomplishment) and another 12 percent into backing. A large majority of recycled nylon is used in engineered resins as a recycled material component in consumer products such as decking, furniture and automotive components.
More recently, the rapid increase in the use of polyester (PET) face fiber in carpet face fiber resulted in a shift in focus to the development of markets and products that can absorb this recycled polymer. Unlike nylon, PET does not have as wide a scope of market outlets because of limitations in some of its physical and chemical properties. CARE is directing a program to focus on the outlets and market challenges with PET to accelerate the development of PET options and outlets, such as decking, diesel fuel, timber, geotextiles and fiber pad.
CARE and its members identified early on that the most sustainable business model for carpet recycling is market-based, which rewards those entrepreneurs who find the most economic ways to recycle carpet and identify the highest-value market outlets for their recycled materials. This approach has been proven in the marketplace. Today there are more than 60 CARE carpet reclamation partners/entrepreneurs across the U.S., many of whom have successful and growing businesses over the last decade.
What makes a good business model for these entrepreneurs? Certainly, it varies by geographic region, and there is no one perfect model. What the entrepreneurs share in common is a laser focus on their customer needs, high standards of operation in compliance with federal, state and local regulations, innovative solutions to the many challenges they face daily, a willingness to learn from and educate others, and a commitment to the environment. Technology evolution stands as one of the hallmarks of this industry with exciting new developments underway.
The carpet recycling industry is an excellent business model for the end-of-life management of valuable recycled materials. Through the hard work and dedication of many people across the U.S., CARE has demonstrated that a market-based model is the sustainable, effective and efficient way to manage the business of carpet recycling.
Without a doubt, constant opportunities are available to improve upon the model and the strategies for carpet recycling. Today, we are addressing the challenges of building new products and market outlets using PCC, finding ways to cost-effectively and sustainably manage PET and deliver results for statewide programs and legislation.
For more information about PCC recycling and to learn how you and your business can add more value to your customers through PCC recycling, visit the CARE website or contact your local CARE reclamation partner. We also encourage you to learn more about PCC recycling by attending a CARE conference. Our fall annual entrepreneur meeting will be Oct. 23 in Atlanta.
The author is the founding executive director and board member of Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), Dalton, Ga., and first recipient of CARE Person of the Year Award. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 214-300-5206.