American carpet manufacturers, many of them based in Georgia, spin out around 420 square miles of product each year — enough to cover four-fifths of the land area of Phoenix.
Most of this material eventually winds up in landfills, though an advanced new Valley recycling factory is making a dent in the waste.
The 110,000-square-foot plant in west Phoenix, which has operated for about a year, shreds, washes and separates materials from carpet remnants and worn carpets collected in southern California and Arizona.
The plant produces gray, rice-sized pellets of nylon that are shipped to another factory in Slovenia, in eastern Europe, for further refining that makes the material pure enough for reuse.
Nylon is a synthetic fiber made from petroleum, so the recycling effort can reduce hydrocarbon consumption, in addition to easing the burden on landfills. Carpeting consists of about 35 percent nylon.
The Phoenix plant also separates other residual materials from carpet that can be used in roads, clothing, backpacks and plastic products such sunglasses. No chemicals are added during the recycling process, and most of the water used is reclaimed. The other materials include polypropylene and calcium carbonate.
The Phoenix facility is owned by Aquafil, an Italian chemical and textile company that makes nylon yarn for carpets and clothing. The publicly owned company is worth about $600 million. Its shares trade on the Italian Stock Exchange.
During a visit, Franco Rossi, an executive director at Aquafil, described the Phoenix factory as a state-of-the-art, highly automated facility capable of operating without much human oversight, though 50 people work there.
“This is the first plant in the world with this technological sophistication,” he said.
Aquafil, which employs about 2,700 people in eight countries, plans to open a similar carpet-recycling facility near Sacramento next year.
“There’s not a lot of know-how or technology to recycle carpet,” he said. “Whoever wants to recycle must invent their own, which is what we’ve done.”
Another common item recycled to make nylon is fishing nets, though that’s not being done at the Phoenix plant.
Aquafil selected Phoenix for the carpet-recycling plant based on favorable business conditions in the area, the presence of carpet-collecting companies and proximity to California, said Samara Croci, an Aquafil spokeswoman.
California enacted legislation in 2010 that encourages landfill diversion by assessing a fee of 25 cents for every square yard of carpet sold in the state.
“Incentives are paid to collectors, processors and manufacturers based on the amount of recovered material,” she said.
Difficult extraction process
Part of the problem in recycling carpeting is breaking it down and separating the materials.
“Carpet is made to be durable,” Rossi said. “We try to do the opposite, at the end of its life.”
The plant obtains carpet from sorting and salvage companies, including used carpeting and remnants from large-scale installers such as those working with Home Depot.
It doesn’t accept carpet dropped off by consumers or other businesses.
“We’re pleased to report that we haven’t received any dead animals, body parts of other things,” Rossi joked during a Dec. 13 ceremony to mark the plant’s grand opening, though it began operations last year.
The Phoenix plant can process 36 million pounds of carpet annually, though that’s only a small slice of the 3.3 billion pounds of carpet discarded every year — representing about 10 pounds per American on average — according to the Carpet and Rug Institute, an industry group.
Somewhere around 5 percent of carpet is recycled, 6 percent is incinerated (often releasing noxious chemicals) and the rest winds up in landfills, according to a 2016 report by environmental-watchdog groups GAIA and the Changing Markets Foundation. About 3.5 percent of all waste in landfills is carpet, the report said.
Carpeting accounts for about half of all indoor flooring sold in the United States.
Employees work at the Aquafil carpet recycling plant in Phoenix. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)
Recycling trend slows
Carpet recycling has struggled in recent years, notwithstanding the landmark California legislation.
Nationally, the amount of carpet diverted from landfills peaked in 2013 and has declined by one-quarter since then.
“Decreased demand due to lack of end markets has negatively impacted everyone in the supply chain,” said the Carpet and Rug Institute in its latest annual report, adding that, “Lower oil and natural gas prices have made virgin products more cost-effective than recycled materials.”
But the carpet-recycling process is profitable for Aquafil, said Rossi. A desire to improve environmental-sustainability practices also guided the company’s decision to invest in the Phoenix plant.
Along with that facility, and the new one coming in California, Aquafil plans to open more carpet-recycling plans around the United States, which will help reduce landfill waste, pollution from incineration and petroleum use.
“Carpeting is a wonderful, big product, but a lot of it gets discarded,” Rossi said. “We are closing the loop on carpet manufacturing.”
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