Environmentally Responsible Carpet Choices

Environmentally Responsible Carpet Choices

Watson, Stephanie A

In the construction stage, buildings consume land, air, space, materials, and energy. When in use, they continue to consume energy and produce waste products. They exist to provide the spaces within, the spaces that interior designers plan, detail, and furnish. Interior designers and architects have traditionally understood their obligations to serve the needs and desires of their clients but have tended to believe that their responsibilities end at that point. In the case of projects in which the commissioning individual, family, or organization will be the only occupant or user, this assumption may seem valid. Yet, such a view ignores the reality that every project, no matter how small or how personal, consumes space, resources, and energy and generates waste, affecting society as a whole (Pile, 2003).

Carpeting, one of the design components most common to all buildings, has affected the environment for years. Unfortunately, its influence has been less than positive. Most carpeting is made from synthetic fibers, such as nylon and polyester, that are not biodegradable. Once disposed of in landfills, carpeting remains in the environment for generations. An option to landfill disposal is to recycle carpet and carpet fibers. Recycling old carpet conserves much-needed landfill space, decreases societal dependence on petroleum, and reduces the energy needed to manufacture carpet from virgin fibers, yielding multiple benefits for the environment. The Carpet and Rug Institute (2000) estimated that 2 million tons of rugs and carpets are removed from homes and businesses each year in the U.S. Even the most durable carpet will eventually reach the end of its useful life as a result of either everyday wear and tear or changing styles and aesthetic desires. Fewer than 1 % of carpets will be recycled.

Recycling can be costly for consumers, and at present, carpet recycling facilities are not widely available. Thus, approaching the problem at the front end of the carpet life cycle becomes important. Designers and consumers can choose from several environmentally responsible carpets. Making this choice requires information that is often difficult to find and is located in diverse publications. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to examine the options available in regard to carpet recycling. An overview of different recycling processes currently being used in the floor covering industry is provided.


Carpet is made from a complex of materials. For example, tufted broadloom carpet consists of four major components: face yarn, primary backing, adhesive, and secondary backing. Face yarn or pile carpeting may be nylon, polypropylene, polyester, wool, or acrylic. Nylon is the most prevalent fiber in use, and it is available in carpet as Type 6 or Type 6,6. Types 6 and 6,6 are made from petroleum-based chemicals; differences between the two are associated with the manufacturing and dyeing processes involved (Hagewood, 1999).

The primary backing is generally a woven polypropylene fabric through which the face yarn is tufted. The adhesive layer is generally made from water-based latex and calcium carbonate mineral filler. The secondary backing is a lightweight fabric that provides strength and dimensional stability. Tn most carpet, secondary backing consists of a polypropylene slit tape in the warp direction and a polypropylene spun yarn in the fill direction. In the case of some types of carpet, such as carpet tiles, a vinyl coating replaces the latex adhesive layer and secondary backing. This structure lends itself to easier recycling techniques (Yeager & Teter-Justice, 2000).


Environmentally responsible carpet choices each have their own merits and considerations, and the choice made will depend on specific need, location, and use. Because of the diversity and mix of materials used in carpets, there is no one obvious approach for recycling. At present, three distinctly different recycling processes are used in the floor covering industry: direct reuse, refurbishment, and recycled content. A brief description of each process follows.

Carpet Reuse

Removing a carpet from its original site, cleaning it, and installing it at another site is a recycling option made possible by the durability and relative long life span of carpet materials (5 to 10 years). Quality recycled carpet can be sold directly to businesses or individuals or donated to charities. Capacity for direct reuse depends on the quality of the materials being replaced (Northeast Recycling Council, 1999).


Carpet refurbishment is another type of recycling, one in which materials are returned to the manufacturer for cleaning, fiber replacement, dyeing, or other types of enhancement. Milliken’s Earth Square Program (formerly called Earthwise Ennovations, or E2) allows modular carpet tiles in commercial applications to be cleaned, retextured, repatterned, and sent back into use (Milliken Carpet, 2003). After the carpet has been refurbished, Milliken will return it to the same customer or resell it.

Milliken contends that its refurbishment process meets the highest criteria of the Environmental Protection Agency in that reuse of carpet lessens the energy consumption, natural resource depletion, and waste and pollution associated with carpet manufactured from new or recycled sources. The E2 process lengthens the usable life of the carpet, which can still be recycled later. Milliken also claims to make refurbished carpet available at about half the price of new carpet. A drawback is that decorative patterns can be added but not removed. As a result, pattern options are limited, and carpet tiles become darker each time they are refurbished (Milliken Carpet, 2003).

Recycled Content

Today, many carpets are available that are manufactured from recycled content, including plastic containers and used carpet fibers. Recycled-content polyester carpet is made from recycled polyester (PET) derived primarily from postconsumer plastic soft drink and ketchup containers (Mohawk Carpets, 2003), whereas recycled-content nylon carpet contains approximately 10% to 25% recycled fibers made up of postconsumer nylon fibers (previously used) and preconsumer nylon (new fibers) derived from the carpet manufacturing process (BASF Corporation, 1999).

Typically, carpet with recycled-content facing is available with either polyester (PET) or nylon fibers (Hagewood, 1999). The most visible company producing carpet from recycled PET is Image Industries, Inc. Image’s Enviro-Tech carpet system keeps more than 50 million pounds of soft drink and ketchup bottles out of America’s landfills each year. The Enviro-Tech system produces its own polyester by melting recycled PET bottles, creating a polymer melt, and extruding this solution through a spinnerette. The resulting filament is twisted and plied according to rigid specifications. PET fibers are naturally stain resistant and do not require the chemical treatments necessary with some nylon carpeting. To date, more than 100 million square yards of carpet made from recycled PET fibers have been sold to environmentally concerned consumers around the world (Mohawk Carpets, 2003).

Nylon, which can be recycled continuously in a closed-loop fashion, is another option. Nylon is a relatively expensive polymer, so many companies are working on ways to separate nylon face fibers from carpet backing and recycle the nylon (“Carpeting, Indoor Air Quality, and the Envi ronment,” 1994). One strategy is to chemically break down, or depolymerize, the nylon. Because it is based on a single source molecule, caprolactum, Nylon 6 lends itself more easily to depolymerization than does Nylon 6,6. BASF and Honeywell (formerly Allied Signal), the two main suppliers of Nylon 6 to the carpet industry, are both focusing on this strategy for remanufacturing virgin-quality Nylon 6 (Honeywell International, 2000).

BASF’s 6ix Again program, the first comprehensive recycling program, was launched in 1994 to provide an alternative to commercial carpet disposal throughout the U.S. and Canada (BASF Corporation, 1999). Nylon carpet fiber is first separated from its backing and then used in one of two ways: it can be depolymerized to create raw material for the manufacture of virgin nylon, or it can be mixed with virgin nylon to produce a product that can be used for new carpeting or other nylon products such as automobile parts, molded plastic, and synthetic lumber. BASF attempts to locate companies that may be able to use leftover backing material; however, they do not guarantee that they will not dispose of it (Ball, 1999).

Originally, the 6ix Again program applied only to carpeting that was made with the company’s Zeftron Nylon 6ix yarn; however, in January 1997. BASF expanded the program to include all carpeting. The only stipulation was that old carpeting be replaced with a 6ix Again product. The success of the 6ix Again program can be seen in the growing number of carpet styles qualifying for the program and the enthusiasm of users who are seeking products with a real environmental advantage that can be recycled again and again (BASF Corporation, 1999).

A joint venture initiated by Honeywell and DSM Chemicals NA-Evergreen Nylon Recycling-has resulted in the development of a patented chemical process designed to convert Nylon 6 carpet into caprolactum. This process essentially involves depolymerization; that is, nylon carpet is fed into a reactor and exposed to patented temperature, pressure, and steam conditions. The process separates the nylon irom its co-products, which include about 20% other polymers and 80% calcium carbonate (Fishbein, 2000). The recycled caprolactum, described by Honeywell and DSM Chemicals as an “infinitely renewable nylon resin,” is being marketed under the brand name “Infinity.” It consists mainly (80%) of postconsumer carpet, but it also contains postindustrial manufacturing waste. The program hopes to recover an estimated 100 million pounds of caprolactum from approximately 200 million pounds of discarded Nylon 6 carpet each year. This would divert about 20% of the nation’s used Nylon 6 carpet from landfills (Honeywell International, 2000).

Carpet with recycled content is readily available through many distributors and is available in many different colors and patterns. In terms of cost, recycled-content carpet is priced competitively with virgin-content carpet of comparable quality. Typically, carpet tiles are more expensive than rolled carpet. However, they may be less expensive in the long run because individual tiles may be replaced, as opposed to the entire carpet. Choosing reconditioned carpet tiles over virgin tiles will produce the best savings.

Making a Choice

The performance of carpet composed of recycled materials is fully competitive with that of carpet not made of such materials. When selecting recycled carpet, consumers do not have to settle for less. A study conducted by Watson and Warnock (2003) showed that the quality of recycled nylon and polyester carpets was just as high as-and, in some cases, higher than-that of newly manufactured carpets. They found that although both types of recycled carpet performed well, the recycled polyester carpet exhibited the best performance of the options examined. Also, the results indicated that the recycled polyester carpet, as compared with the other types of carpet assessed in the study, showed less color change, better maintained the number of original tufts per square inch, and exhibited greater percentage compression and recovery of yarn structures. These findings are significant given that, as the environmental movement gains momentum, a growing number of designers are incorporating recycled materials, including carpet, into their interior projects.

Environmentally preferable carpet choices each have their own merits, and making a particular selection depends on the carpet’s specific need, location, and use. Polyester (PET) carpets are recommended for light-to-moderate-use areas such as private offices. Carpet made of recycled nylon has wider applications, including heavier-use areas such as hallways and entrances.

There are many ways to evaluate general performance criteria, including the following:

* Evaluating options based on the recycled content and recyclability of the face fiber, backing, and cushion.

* Evaluating the density and durability of the fiber, as well as the color and pattern, in regard to expected traffic level and use. Lower pile height and higher pile yarn density are better for high-traffic areas and offer the most performance for the money.

* Evaluating options, such as easy-to-blend patterns, that make spot replacement easier and delay full replacement.

* Evaluating volatile organic compounds associated with both the carpet itself and the installation adhesives to minimize “off-gassing,” which can be harmful to both installers and occupants.


Carpeting has become ubiquitous in North America, covering more floors in homes, businesses, and institutions than all other types of floor covering combined. It is preferred for its softness, ability to hide dirt, acoustic muffling, and low cost. Recently, however, carpet disposal has become a major issue. In more than 60% of cases, new carpet replaces old carpet, amounting to about one billion square yards, or 3.5 billion pounds, annually.

Current carpet design practices often emphasize appearance to the exclusion of manufacturing methods and environmental considerations. If there is to be a balanced view of overall impact, carpet selection must involve an assessment of all aspects of the manufacturing life cycle, from the initial concept stage to eventual disposal.

Both manufacturers and the public should support carpet reuse or refurbishment as the best means of carpet waste reduction. Fiber as well as backing materials can be reused, thus producing the least possible amount of waste material. By purchasing carpet made from recycled content, consumers can help conserve resources, save energy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Choosing recycled-content carpet also helps build the market for these recyclable materials. According to the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance (2002), given similar appropriate uses, carpet with recycled content meets the same industry performance standards (and carries the same manufacturer warranties) as carpet without such content in terms of traffic wear, fire rating, stain resistance, and color fading. The practice of designing carpeting with recycling in mind is particularly significant in that it focuses on the needs and values of end users and relates product use and maintenance to the act of sustaining the planet.


One of the distinguishing features of any profession is a body of knowledge that defines its practice. Another is a process of inquiry that challenges and expands that body of knowledge, helping to ensure that it stays vital and relevant. Interior designers are fortunate that, in addition to enjoying a respectable body of professional knowledge and research, they can draw upon the knowledge of other disciplines that investigate various aspects of the interior built environment.

In addition to architecture and engineering, the sciences of textiles, ergonomics, optics, and acoustics, to name a few, have greatly increased understanding of how people interact with their physical surroundings. Psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology provide insight into the social uses and meanings of defined spaces, whether natural or fashioned.

Nonetheless, research and practice maintain a tenuous relationship. The applicability of pure research to practice is often obscure, and designers tend to rely on one another, rather than on researchers, to resolve immediate problems. Moreover, practitioners may find that research is difficult to track down, access, and interpret.

InformeDesign (www.informedesign.umn.edu), a free, online service, however, may change all that. InformeDesign was created by the University of Minnesota with the sponsorship of the American Society of Interior Designers. Using material drawn from a wide range of academic disciplines, InformeDesign transforms scholarly research articles focusing on design and human behavior into user-friendly research summaries highlighting design-related findings. More than 500 research summaries are added annually, inviting exploration and discovery.

Included in the site are research summaries on sustainable design, green design, energy efficient design, indoor air quality, lighting efficiency, and material specification. Examples include “Optional Uses of Recycled Postconsumer Fibers,” “Selecting Sustainable Interior Materials for Schools,” and “Polypropylene Fibers Are Affected by Ozone.” Applicable JFCS articles have been included on the site as well.

The site also includes a glossary, a calendar of research-related events, and a list of sources. A monthly newsletter, Implications, is available as well. InformeDesign conducts several Web casts annually, featuring renowned speakers on topics of interest.

More than simply an informational site, InformeDesign is an online community for those interested and involved in design and human behavior research. Practitioners and researchers can engage in dialogue by participating in a number of online forums and posting requests regarding collaborative research opportunities. Educators, students, industry representatives, and researchers in related fields also will find this site useful.

The mission of InformeDesign is to facilitate interior designers’ use of current, research-based Information as a decision-making tool in the design process, thereby integrating research and practice.

Copyright American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences Jan 2005

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