Recycling: 3 tough questions about a sacred cow

Radical Industrialists

Recycling: 3 tough questions about a sacred cow

Plastic bottle image by Dan Kosmayer via Shutterstock.

A commercial is playing in which a young mother grabs a bottle of water as she heads out for a jog. She waves goodbye to her family playing soccer on the front lawn. She later finds a recycling bin in which she tosses the empty plastic bottle.

We learn in the commercial that this plastic bottle is one of 14,000 that are converted into carpet fiber every day, which can return to the mother’s home to provide softness and warmth underfoot for years to come. End of happy recycling story, right? If only it were so simple.

This commercial offers the opportunity to ask some rather sacrilegious questions about recycling, environmentalism's favorite sacred cow. Recycling is often spoken of as an end in itself, a virtuous act that is inherently beneficial and even synonymous with environmentalism. But recycling is actually a means to an end.

So why do we recycle?

Recycling is held sacred because, if done right, it holds the promise of creating a circular economy where materials can be reused many times, displacing impacts of virgin materials, reducing impacts from end-of-life, and keeping these valuable technical nutrients in our system. At the same time, it can support the economy, provide jobs and give businesses a way to make products without damaging planetary life support systems.

Keeping these reasons and the commercial in mind, we pose three questions that can be used to assess whether a recycled material actually is beneficial to the environment and the community:

Reason 1: Recycled materials can displace the use of environmentally damaging sources of virgin raw materials from mines, oil wells, industrial agriculture, etc.

Question 1: Does using the recycled material reduce the use of virgin materials and reduce the life cycle environmental impact of producing the product?

At Interface, we know from firsthand experience that the answer to this is not always "yes." In the late 1990s, our first attempts to create a 100 percent recycled carpet tile backing from our old products actually produced a product with a larger environmental footprint due to the inefficiency of a three-part manufacturing process using energy intensive machinery.

However, life cycle assessment shows that the environmental footprint of PET (polyester) carpet yarn from drink bottles actually is smaller than carpet yarn from PET made entirely from oil and gas, and is substantially smaller than the footprint of carpet made with virgin nylon yarn.

So what's the problem? The happy recycling story from the commercial has survived the first question.

Plastic bottle image by Dan Kosmayer via Shutterstock.

Reason 2: Recycling materials can reduce the negative impacts of end-of-life disposal in the environment, landfill or incineration.

Question 2: Does using the recycled material reduce the negative impacts associated with end-of-life disposal?

PET carpet gives those 14,000 bottles per day a useful second life. In fact, the carpet industry is one of the largest users of post-consumer PET bottles in the U.S. today. But if it weren't for carpet, what would the end-of-life be for these bottles?

Interestingly, 2011 data shows that about 70 percent of PET bottles are not collected for recycling at all and 10 percent of what is collected falls out as waste during the recycling process. The PET recycling industry is actually in a situation where demand exceeds supply. There is no shortage of companies wanting to use the available 20 percent of PET bottles that are recycled into usable material, but there is a shortage of bottles being collected in the first place.

Unfortunately, by using so much of our sadly limited supply of post-consumer PET bottles for carpet yarn, we are ensuring that all of this material soon will end up in a landfill or an incinerator, because PET carpet is not recyclable. If PET carpet stopped using post-consumer material tomorrow, it is more than likely that the carpet industry's portion of the collected bottles instead would become new fleece jackets, juice bottles or flexible packaging, all of which have more developed options for recycling at end-of-life.

PET carpet yarns crush and mat more easily than nylon, so need to be replaced more often, but almost no facilities in the U.S. will recycle them. Worse, the proliferation of PET carpet waste is putting the entire national carpet recycling industry in jeopardy, which brings us to Question No. 3.

Reason 3: Recycled materials can be used multiple times to create the basis for a circular economy that grows without needing new raw materials from the Earth.

Question 3: Is the recycled material used in such a way that it is recoverable to cycle multiple times through a circular economy?

PET carpet, passable on the question of displacing virgin raw material, and questionable on end-of-life benefits, fails the "circular economy" question quite spectacularly.   

Plastic bottle image by Dan Kosmayer via Shutterstock.

Currently, the U.S. carpet recycling industry depends on the value of nylon in old carpet to be profitable. Most carpet fiber is made from nylon, a very durable plastic prized in many industries, including carpet and auto parts. In contrast, PET is a financial liability once it has been turned into carpet.  

Every time a carpet recycler receives a load of carpet, the portion of the load that is PET carpet becomes a cost that eats into profit margins. Even in California, where a tax on new carpet sales subsidizes carpet recycling at 3 cents to 6 cents per pound, carpet recyclers are struggling to stay in business in the face of nearly 30 percent PET carpet in the incoming waste stream. State authorities are shutting down one recycler for running an illegal landfill after allowing PET and other non-recyclable carpet to build up into giant mountains in their facility for many months because they couldn't afford to send it to a landfill or incinerator.

The PET carpet situation represents such a threat to the viability of the U.S. carpet recycling industry that the industry-funded Carpet America Recovery Effort has put out an RFP to sponsor the development of end-of-life solutions for PET carpet. In the meantime, some PET carpet manufacturers are re-branding their incineration of non-recyclable carpet such as PET as "recycled to energy," because they are able to generate some electricity for their facilities by burning it.

The risk of making recycled content a sacred cow, enshrined in procurement policies and building standards, is that we might stop asking these tough questions and forget that recycling, for all its importance, is not an end unto itself. We run the risk of losing track of our original environmental goals and forgetting to question our assumptions, such as the assumption that we even need products like PET carpet, regardless whether made from recycled content, if they clearly undermine our efforts to build a circular economy we all can be proud of.

So what would our perfect recycling fantasy be? Something that would stand up to tough questions, solve environmental problems and build a better economy?

We're working on something that comes close, but you'll have to wait until next month's column to find out more.

Plastic bottle image by Dan Kosmayer via Shutterstock.