I recently took an ecological footprint quiz and learned that it would take 21 biologically productive acres to support my lifestyle. If everyone on Earth lived like me, we would need 4.7 planets, and I was 12 percent below average for an American!

The only saving grace here is that so far most of the world has yet to achieve my middle-class American lifestyle.

But, as the economies in India, China and other developing countries take off and large numbers of their citizens begin to consume at the same rate as we Americans, the competition for scarce resources will be intense. We will all have to learn to do more with less, and the whole world will be saying renew, reuse, recycle about everything, including houses.

In the home-building arena in the United States, much progress has already been made in building houses that are more resource-efficient. Less energy is needed to heat and cool them. Many commonly used building materials are made with less waste, less water and more environmentally benign components. Some materials contain recycled material, and some materials can be recycled at the end of their useful life in a house. But manufacturers of housing components, as in other manufacturing sectors, have discovered that it’s not so easy to get from here to there, from leaving a big ecological footprint to leaving a smaller one.

A classic example is the experience of the carpet industry, one of the first to wholeheartedly embrace the renew, reuse, recycling credo. It has achieved stunning success and market acceptance with some products that are made with recycled materials, but the products do not lend themselves to further recycling and most will eventually end up in a landfill. This is not such a critical issue now, but it will be in the not-so-distant future.

The carpet industry makes carpets than can be endlessly recycled, but the price is too high for these to be widely used in houses. The carpet industry is also working with other industries to develop non-carpet products that can be made with used carpet.

The biggest obstacle facing the carpet industry’s efforts to recycle, and indeed one that faces any other industry that wants to use recycled materials in its products is the sale price, which is everything in a market-driven economy like ours. If the recycling process makes the product more costly than the conventional and less benign one it strives to replace, it won’t be widely used.

It also goes without saying that consumers want the same quality and the same look and feel, as well as the same price. Small fibers and a quaint look are OK for recycled paper; an unbleached, coffee-colored napkin made of recycled paper at Starbuck’s could be characterized as an “accessorizing plus.” But few people want little specs on their walls after the paint has dried or a somewhat faded pattern on their vinyl flooring, even if it meant that fewer resources were used in the construction of their new house.

In making polyester carpet from recycled soda pop bottles–one of the carpet industry’s first sallies into the recycling arena–the right price and the right look were not big issues The carpets are made by the Calhoun, Ga.-based Mohawk Industries, one of the largest carpet manufacturers in the world. For its “PET Collection” carpet line, the company uses about 20 percent of all soda pop bottles recovered for recycling. The “food grade” quality of the plastic in the bottles is actually higher than the polyester that is ordinarily used in carpet, Frank Endrenyi of Mohawk said.

Once the polyester is made into a carpet fiber, however, it cannot be reprocessed and reused to make new carpet fibers. At this juncture, most polyester carpet will end up in a landfill at the end of its useful life.

From a recycling perspective, the carpet industry has had more recycling success with its nylon carpets. The nylon-6 fibers that are used in about half of the carpets made today are “forever renewable.” They can be reprocessed and reused over and over to make nylon-6 carpet, keeping it out of a landfill.

Honeywell, a major supplier of the nylon-6 fiber used by carpet manufacturers, was so enthusiastic about the market potential for renewed nylon-6 fiber it invested $80 million in a state of the art plant in Augusta, Ga.

Unfortunately, the reclaimed nylon-6 was not cost-competitive with virgin nylon-6 and the plant closed in 2001, after less than two years of operation. Honeywell continues to produce the renewed nylon-6 in small quantities at two smaller facilities. Most of the carpet that is made with it is a more expensive commercial grade, but executives at Mohawk and Shaw Industries–the largest carpet manufacturer in the world, headquartered in Dalton, Ga.–anticipate that the renewed nylon-6 fiber carpets will eventually be a standard offering in their residential carpet lines.

Nylon carpet fiber and polyester fiber can be recycled into fiber carpet pads, another product that can be recycled over and over again. Both Shaw and Mohawk make the fiber pads.

In houses, the fiber pads are used under berber carpeting because they make the seams less visible. The fiber pads could easily be used for the rest of the house. The main reason they are not is the way they feel when walked on. The fiber pads are firm, and most consumers prefer the soft cushiony feel of bonded polyurethane pads that are made from recycled carpet pads and post-industrial scrap from furniture manufacturers. For people with chemical sensitivities, however, the fiber pads may be preferable because they emit fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs), though both types of pads are low emitters.

Recycling the fiber only accounts for part of the carpet, however. There is still the backing to reckon with.

In some cases the backing can be recycled. For example, Shaw uses a polyolefin plastic backing that can be recycled over and over as plastic carpet backing for most of its commercial grade carpet tiles.

For the filler in its carpet tile-backing Shaw uses coal flyash instead of limestone, a non-renewable resource that has traditionally been used by carpet manufacturers. The flyash is a coal byproduct produced by coal-burning, electric-generating plants. Before adding the flyash to the backing mix, it is sorted and only the fully oxidized portion, which contains no heavy metals, is used, said Steve Bradfield of Shaw, who added that the flyash shows “great promise” for broadloom carpets and may eventually be used in residential carpeting.

The carpet industry has also been working with other industries to develop “whole carpet technologies,” processes that utilize the entire carpet, both the fibers and the backing to make other products. So far, the recycled products include, among others, plastic railroad ties, construction sheeting and roof shingles. The nylon fibers have also found their way into the concrete industry. The fibers from used carpeting can be added to concrete slabs to help prevent them from cracking.

If you’re curious about the size of your ecological footprint, go to www.myfootprint.org and take the test.

Queries or questions? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.


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