Carpet Recycling Worldwide

Posted on September 25, 2013

Carpet recycling is on the rise here in the United States! Last year, 10% of the nation’s carpet waste was diverted from landfills and much of that was recycled into high-value materials. But what about carpet waste in other parts of the world?

The United Kingdom lacks a local facility for processing polymer fibers and their carpet waste mostly consists of polypropylene-based fibers, which both act to limit the capacity for recycling recovered carpet. Despite this, an impressive 21.4% of the nation’s carpet waste was diverted from landfill in 2012, which represents a 10-fold increase since 2008. Of the diverted waste, 58% was used for energy recovery in cement kilns, 34% was downcycled for use in equestrian surfaces, and the remaining 8% was recycled or reused. CARE was happy to offer advice to Carpet Recycling UK while they were getting underway and their progress is impressive.

Carpets have been banned from landfill in Germany since 2005 and are now banned across the European Union. While a large nylon-6 recycling plant operated in Germany from 2000-2002, it closed due to a lack of raw materials. Without any major facilities for polymer recovery operating, much of the carpet waste in the EU is either burned in cement kilns or incinerated. Desso, a Netherlands-based carpet manufacturer, is now piloting its Refinity recycling process for cradle-to-cradle reuse of carpet tiles.

Canada has a small carpet recycling program, but is challenged by its widely dispersed population. Because the face fiber represents the majority of the value in recycled carpet but only a fraction of the weight, population density factors heavily in the viability of the carpet recycling. A small number of carpet collection facilities are operating in Canada, but are too far from recycling facilities in the US to effectively ship materials.

Most of Australia’s carpet waste is currently being disposed of in landfills, but increased environmental awareness and disposal costs are driving interest in carpet recycling here. There is a small market for collecting and downcycling synthetic carpet waste into low-value plastics. One manufacturer has resorted to shipping recovered nylon face fiber to the United States for recycling (carbon offsets are used to account for the transportation emissions). Also, wool-based carpets are more popular in Australia than in other nations, which can be composted without adding to landfill waste.

With limited space and a high population density, Japan has long limited landfill disposal and currently incinerates more than 80% of its waste. But Japan is also an avid recycler, with some communities collecting as many as 44 separate waste streams. In Yokohama, Japan, residents receive a 27-page booklet on waste disposal with specific instructions for 518 items. Until recently, carpet was among the incinerated waste, but carpet manufacturers are now accepting used carpet tiles for reprocessing into new carpet.

Readers should note the use of cement kilns offer a unique opportunity for recycling old carpet.  Not only is the energy content recovered to fire the kiln by displacing coal, but the calcium carbonate in the carpet backing is the actual raw materials used to make Portland cement, so there is no ash. This gives a double benefit for carpet recycling via this approach.

While incinerating carpets is a much better alternative to burying them in landfills, it is still a remarkable waste of the natural resources that went into their manufacture. As awareness and interest in carpet recycling spreads worldwide and the amount of landfill-diverted carpet increases, new facilities for recycling carpet will become viable in many more countries. More facilities mean the creation of more green jobs and the reduction of cost and energy associated with transporting collected carpet.

CARE looks forward to increased carpet recycling and sustainability not just in the US, but around the world. It’s good to see many other countries off to a good start!