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Floored by recycling

Closed loop carpet recycling and design for disassembly are not strategies you expect to hear when listening to speakers at Ecobuild’s Carpet Recycling UK conference. Such ideas are still being tackled by the rest of the materials recycling world, which is arguably much more established than the carpet recycling sector.

Forbo Flooring head of textile and design Jason Holmes wants carpet recycling to be seen in the same way as aluminium, where cans are seen as ‘cash’ rather than being discarded as waste, the current fate of unwanted carpet. “For carpets, we have a long way to go until we get to that point. That’s where we need to be,” he says.

However young the carpet recycling sector may seem, there is a huge amount of engagement and drive from stakeholders implementing strategies that are looking at end-of-life uses for discarded carpets other than equestrian surfaces.

Desso makes carpets for the business, consumer, hospitality, marine and aviation sectors. Its director of sustainability Rudi Daelmans is driving his company to produce closed-loop carpet.

“We have gone into a full carpet-to-carpet philosophy. We are closing the loop, but we can’t do that if we don’t know what we are trying to recycle,” he says. “So, all the products we are designing have a carpet-to-carpet design criteria to follow. We believe it is important not to recycle for recycling’s sake [if it means harming the environment], so we ensure all the materials we use are safe for the environment and for our customers to use.”

Desso uses its carbon footprint measure to direct what materials should be used in the process. Daelmans continues: “CO2 is not the problem - it is immaterial within carpet-to-carpet recycling. The focus is re-using the carbon embedded in your raw materials [by creating a closed loop process].” This has led Desso to redesign its carpets with the knowledge that they will need to be disassembled, while a take-back system is being developed to recapture the carpets it has designed to be recycled.

“Currently, the most common end-use for carpet is landfill or energy-from-waste (EfW). This doesn’t fit in with the Desso ethos, so we design carpets to be able to separate all the materials,” Daelmans adds. “The equipment we use gives us the opportunity to separate the backing from the yarn. The backing can go into road works and roof construction, while the fibre can be depolymerised. The carpets use a basic fibre which can be put back into our products.”

“We design carpets to be able to separate all the materials”

Daelmans explains that bitumen found in normal carpet backing is not easily recycled, so by designing its own backing, Desso has made it recyclable. All this sound extremely advanced for such a youthful recycling infrastructure. Forbo’s Holmes admits that, previously, as a designer, a carpet’s end-of-life “was when it went down on the floor and nothing concerned us after that”.

For designers, the purpose of carpet has always been as a decorative medium, a material that is used within interior design. Holmes says: “It is based on [the element of] change but this is not sustainable any more. How do we change this attitude? As a business we thought about green design. So we needed to define what we termed ‘green principles’ and communicate this within the business and also to our customers.”

He explains that designing a carpet for recycling at the end of its life fundamentally altered traditional carpet design ideas, tending to rule out mixtures of fibres, dyes and certain types of backing.

“Now, ideally, the structure of the carpet becomes part of its aesthetic finish. This is a big conflict in my industry [which is led by aesthetics from colours and material quality] but it is something we must strive towards. We can create colour without using embossing and the extras we usually have. We also sell wool carpets but we do not dye the fabric, selling them in natural colours instead. While doing this, we are making the carpets durable and taking the weight out of them. They’re not necessarily as attractive but the carpet is designed well [and fit for purpose].”

By rethinking the design, Forbo is producing a carpet which contains a high recycled, re-use or salvage content that can be recycled again. Carpet production has been developed to avoid any wastage and, where any is produced, it can go back into the process. Holmes strips his strategy down: “Very simply, simple processes are greener.”

But while the steps Desso and Forbo have taken are admirable, there is still a long way to go.

Holmes explains: “We can talk about [designing carpet for recycling], but these are specialist treatments that are not situated all over the country. It is not easy to source the right materials. In order to do these things, the material has to be readily recyclable and readily re-usable, but it will only happen if we treat our waste as a raw material that has value.”

Because of the lack of carpet collection infra-structure, Forbo currently sees demand outstripping supply for its sustainable carpets because its own carpet waste on production lines is not sufficient for its operations. This has meant Forbo is actually taking carpet waste from competitors to be used in its carpets. Indeed, convincing others in the supply chain of the importance of carpet recycling has proved difficult.

“Those working within sales and supply do not receive the same messages we do [about sustainability and carbon footprint],” he says. “They do not always understand that by taking the weight out of a product while keeping the same level of performance, it is better. They just don’t believe that the carpet can be as durable if it is not heavy.”

Daelmans adds that the Government could do more: “I feel it is not always jumping high enough to help because it thinks it costs money. It would be nice if it was a front-runner and banned carpet from landfill. Additionally, design for disassembly is exactly what the European Commission wants.”

Many carpet recycling schemes seem at present to be aimed towards floor tiles, which are used in the corporate and hospitality sectors, provide a large tonnage of the same material and are seen as generally easier to recycle. Post-consumer carpet, on the other hand, which makes up the larger proportion of discarded carpets and 11% of bulky waste at civic amenity sites, may be more of a challenge with the differing mixes of fibres used.

But coming away from the conference, there were definite signs of an innovative new materials market about to emerge.

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