- By Michael Fickes
- January 1st, 2008
Colleges and universities want to recycle old
flooring materials torn out during renovations. But for the vast majority of
schools, the infrastructure required to recycle flooring doesn’t exist.
It isn’t the fault of the schools. Many, if not
most, employ coordinators with staffs to look after a range of sustainable
construction and renovation issues including recycling.
“The college and university sector has always been
ahead of the recycling curve,” said Kate Krebs, a spokesperson for the National
Recycling Coalition (NRC) in Washington,
DC. “Recycling was becoming
institutionalized on campuses 20 years ago. Today, there are new titles like
that of sustainability director handling recycling and moving into procurement
and design work to ensure the use of sustainable materials.”
Krebs adds that the NRC’s College and University
Recycling Council (CURC) has become a powerful voice arguing in favor of
sustainable policies on campus.
While college and university sustainability
directors may want to recycle old flooring, flooring, by and large, simply is
not recyclable, says Bill Clossin, general manager, education markets, with
Dalton, GA-based Tandus, a manufacturer of many kinds of commercial flooring.
How can that be? Almost all flooring contains
materials commonly associated with recycling. There is carpet with easily
recyclable nylon tufts and backing. Linoleum is a mix of natural ingredients,
including linseed oil and cork shavings. What about wood and wood laminate
products? Stone floors including granite and terrazzo probably make good
recycling candidates. Then there are relatively new flooring products
especially suited to today’s recycling era: cork and bamboo.
Components and Materials
Of course, some flooring products don’t lend
themselves to recycling. Vinyl sheet and vinyl composition tile (VCT) have
vinyl components that might be recycled, but experts say that separating the
vinyl from the other components has proven more expensive than the potential
While it seems logical that most flooring materials
can be recycled, with the notable exception of carpet, most old flooring is not
“For a product to be recycled, there has to be an
established recycling program in place,” Clossin said. “Everyone knows that
newspaper is recyclable. But if there is no recycling center nearby that
handles newspapers, you won’t drive 100 miles to drop off a few pounds of newspapers.
You’ll throw them in the landfill, and they won’t be recycled.”
What about linoleum and stone? Both are natural
products used to make flooring. “I’m not aware of any stone flooring products
that are recycled,” Clossin said. “I suppose it can be done. But is there a
process available? I’m not aware of one.
“As for linoleum — while it is promoted as natural,
it doesn’t have an established recycling path.
“Asking whether or not a product, say linoleum, can
be recycled is not the right question. Sure, linoleum can be recycled, and,
sure, I can get a date with Christie Brinkley. But neither of these scenarios
is likely. The right question to ask is: what program exists to recycle this
While carpet is not universally recyclable, it is
frequently recyclable, thanks to efforts made by the carpet industry. “The
industry is to be commended,” Clossin said. “It has taken carpet recycling
pretty far along since 2002.”
The growth of carpet recycling has come as the result
of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between the carpet industry and
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2002. The agreement committed
industry and government to the goal of keeping old carpet out of landfills and
incinerators. The organization established to carry out this work is a joint
industry/government undertaking called the Carpet America Recovery Effort
In 2002, according to carpet industry estimates,
approximately 3.8 percent of the total discarded carpet in the U.S. flowed
into a recycling program. In 2008, the rate is expected to reach 11 percent. By
2012, between 20 and 25 percent of discarded carpet is expected to be recycled.
At 11 percent, the percentage of carpet that is
recycled remains small, but it is growing because the carpet industry is
establishing a system that makes carpet recycling economical.
Since 2002, CARE has also expanded the collection
network for post consumer carpet from five sites to 37 sites — a notable
expansion perhaps, but the carpet recycling network remains unavailable to many
colleges and universities that would like to use it.
“I hate to admit it, but we throw carpet out,” said
Mary Jensen, the coordinator for sustainability and recycling at Keene State
College in Keene, NH, and chair of the College and University
Recycling Council for the National Recycling Coalition (CURC). “We use carpet
with recycled content here, mostly carpet tiles. But the recycling logistics
don’t work for us when carpet wears out, and we end up throwing it away.”
Jensen’s dilemma isn’t unusual. Lin King, the
program manager for the R4 Recycling Program at the University
of California, Davis, has the same problem with carpet. “Our
vendor has in the past recommended that we bring in roll-off trailers to hold
carpet torn out during a replacement project,” King said. “We did that thinking
that it would be recycled. But it was taken to a waste-to-energy plant and
burned instead. They called it recycling, but to me, recycling means being put
back into a carpet-making process.”
When he investigated, King found that no recycling
plants were operating within an economical shipping distance. As far as he is
concerned, carpet is not a recyclable flooring material in Davis, CA.
East Coast Opportunity
Carpet is recyclable on the other side of the
country, in Dalton, GA, the home of many carpet manufacturers.
Post-consumer carpet that can be shipped economically to Dalton is chopped in small pieces, heated and
made into pellets. Then it is extruded into long ropes, which are fed into a
machine called a calender, which flattens out the extruded rope and produces
backing for new carpet.
While it may seem surprising that the nylon fibers
aren’t re-used in making carpet tufts, it is a young process, according to
Clossin. “Today, you can get nylon fibers with a small percentage of recycled
content, but you can only use them in a certain percentage of the total carpet
fibers because of concerns about performance,” he said.
People talk so much about recycling today that it is
surprising to learn that such a small amount of flooring is actually recycled.
But a closer look at what has to happen for products — such as carpet — to be
recycled indicates just how difficult the process can be. In the case of
carpet, as well as other recyclable products, collection networks must be built
to transport post-consumer goods economically. Scientists have to figure out
how to do it. Engineers must build new plants to carry out the recycling
process. And, of course, there must ultimately be a market willing to buy the
products made of recycled materials.