Navigating roadblocks to recycled content

Mohawk Industries
PET flake from recycled bottles become the material for carpets.

The following is a sponsored article from Mohawk Industries.

It’s not hard to find manufacturing companies that have implemented ambitious landfill waste diversion programs. Several, including Mohawk Industries, are demonstrating marked progress toward achieving their goals.

But for many of us, we see recycling as a two-way street — minimizing not only what we put in the landfill, but also maximizing what we can pull out.

We’re finding that the second part of this equation, even when it makes environmental and economic sense, has the potential to be a bumpy ride. A closer look at two flooring categories offers insights into what happens when you try to increase the amount of recycled content in product, but the recycled material is simply not there.

On the surface, carpet made from polyethylene, or PET, bottles has been a resounding success. Indeed, plastic bottles are the poster child of recycling in the U.S. The technology has been around for more than three decades and provides a cost-effective alternative to virgin polyester. 

Mohawk alone has been able to divert 3 billion pounds of bottles from landfill while offering our customers a carpet with 100 percent recycled content. Extending our commitment, in 2013 we invested $180 million to debut a new manufacturing process to create an even higher-quality carpet from PET bottles, expanding one of our fastest growing categories. 

Demand for PET recycled content is strong, but what about supply? It’s often constrained. Consider that only 31.2 percent of PET bottles in the U.S. were recycled in 2013. While that percentage is higher than in the past, it nevertheless means that two-thirds of plastic bottles, or more than 5 million pounds, are still ending life in a landfill. 

Mohawk Industries
<p><span>Recycled bottles being sorted at Mohawk Industries’ Summerville, Georgia facility.</span></p>

Improving plastic bottle recycling is largely dependent upon changing consumer behavior, but there are other roadblocks in the quest to increase the supply of PET recycled content. Single-stream recycling, for example, has helped to increase PET recycling volume, but often results in quality contamination of PET material. That, in turn, presents both cost and operational issues for reclaimers.

Uneven material quality also can create a roadblock for post-consumer wood waste, another important input for flooring manufacturers seeking to increase their use of recycled content. Unlike plastic bottles marked with a No. 1, there is no identification system to distinguish various types of wood waste. Some wood is solid; some is pressed filled with adhesive; while other material is coated with plastic. Although it all may “read” as wood, the hodge-podge chemical composition can easily shut down the recycling process. 

Wood recycling has its knots, too

There are additional hurdles in Belgium, where much of our wood-based product manufacturing is based. Wood itself presents a sourcing challenge as land constraints limit the amount of virgin material from forests in the region. This makes post-consumer wood waste all the more important. 

But we’re not the only purchaser seeking the more than 1.3 billion pounds of wood that households and businesses dispose of annually. With the EU calling for 20 percent renewable energy, this resource is also in high demand by electric utilities as a biomass feedstock.

In recognition of how vital wood waste is to manufacturing growth in the region, the Flemish government has stipulated that wood streams must be used as a raw material as often and as long as possible before ending up as biomass. 

With this support in place, we’ve joined waste collectors, waste sorters and recyclers in a two-year study to develop, analyze and evaluate different scenarios around the many roadblocks to wood waste recycling in the region. The goal is to find a way to repurpose wood waste at least one more time before it ultimately reaches end of life as biomass material.

As with any journey, obstacles are to be expected as we pursue our sustainability objectives. We’ve seen how innovation and collaboration not only can find a way around, but also often right through these obstructions. 

The business imperative is clear: Consumers and commercial customers are seeking more recycled content in the products we offer. That bottom line consideration will continue to motivate us — but so too will the opportunity to be a leader in contributing to a zero-waste future.