Actor and activist, Bonnie Wright and National Geographic Explorer, Asher Jay are in Phoenix, Arizona to find out how old carpets are being put to new use.
Video by National Geographic

In the last couple of years, consumers have woken up to the scourge of single-use plastics, in particular the millions of tons of plastic trash ending up in the world’s oceans every year. But another waste product derived from the petrochemical industry has gone largely under the radar, despite serious environmental impacts.

“Images of whales with stomachs full of plastic are shocking,” says Samara Croci. “But huge amounts of carpet thrown everyday into landfill just isn’t headline-grabbing.”

Croci works for Aquafil, an Italian company that specialises in the sustainable production of ECONYL regenerated nylon yarn. The company has been active in the States for two decades, and in 2017 opened a unique facility in Phoenix, Arizona, that focuses entirely on processing old carpets.

The carpet industry has been noteworthy for its lack of sustainability: every year 1.7 million tons of carpet is dumped in landfill in the US alone - 89% of the country’s carpet waste. Of the remaining carpet, some is incinerated, while less than 5% is currently recycled.

Ubiquitous as it is, most of us don’t consider how carpet is manufactured, what materials are used, or how it’s disposed of. Most carpet isn’t made from natural fibers, it’s made from synthetic materials such as nylon or polyester for the pile combined with polypropylene and calcium carbonate for the backing. “It’s the combination of ingredients that makes recycling difficult,” says Croci.

Besides their composite structure, carpets are also routinely treated with chemical flame retardants and stain repellants. A December 2018 report by the Changing Markets Foundation found that carpet manufacturers in the US and Europe were using harmful toxins including phthalates and PFASs - manmade chemicals that have both been linked to cancer and other serious health issues.

Most carpet manufacturers still rely on a traditional linear supply chain that is extremely wasteful in its resource use. They source their raw materials from non-renewable oil and gas extracted from the ground to create products that have an average lifespan of just 10-15 years, before they’re buried again in landfill where they can take hundreds of years to decompose.

While pressure is increasing on the carpet industry to improve both the sustainability and safety of its products, Aquafil is disrupting the traditional linear supply chain by diverting old carpet away from landfill and turning the nylon component into pristine ECONYL thread.

“It’s not just about developing the technology to break down the carpet into its component parts,” says Juan Carlos Anota, manager at Aquafil’s Phoenix plant. “We’re making it work at scale because we’ve developed our own circular supply chain.”

The Phoenix facility runs night and day, and has the capacity to process more than 16,000 tons of used carpet annually. One side of the building is for storage - a 35000 square foot space filled with a maze of musty carpet bales that is constantly being replenished.

Much of it arrives from nearby Planet Recycling, a company that is both a collection point for old carpet and a showroom for new and recycled product. Here, trucks pull up throughout the day laden with carpet that is unloaded and sorted using a sensor that detects whether the material is nylon or polyester.

According to facility owner Rachel Palopoli, consumers don’t generally ask about a carpet’s eco-credentials. “People are concerned about things like color, feel, stain resistance, and price of course,” she says. “But they’re generally not aware of the differences between polyester and nylon, say.”

One of these differences is recyclability. Although some polyester carpets are made of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles, once they’ve reached their end of life, they cannot be recycled again - which means they end up in landfill. Says Palopoli, “Technically it can be done, but the virgin material is so inexpensive and the cost to chemically recycle the PET so expensive, it would not be financially beneficial to the carpet mills.”

Nylon on the other hand can in principal be recycled ad infinitum - presenting the prospect of a cradle to cradle production cycle where old carpets are turned into new ones over and over again.

The process by which Aquafil deconstructs carpet into its component parts sounds like alchemy. Plant workers feed pieces of carpet one by one onto a conveyor that sends them into a shredder that reduces them to 1.86 square inch (12 square centimeter) pieces. Through a cutting edge dry and wet process, the three components are sorted into separate streams. 90% of the water output is recycled. The calcium carbonate (or ash) emerges as a dense dust that is chemically identical to chalk, the polypropylene as fluff that is baled up, and the nylon in spaghetti like strings that are cut into tiny pellets.

The recovered calcium carbonate - which makes up a whopping 40% of the carpet’s total volume - is used in the construction industry. The while the polypropylene is used to make engineered plastics, which could then be used to make anything from food packaging to chairs to children’s toys. The nylon however remains in Aquafil’s supply chain.

“At the end of our process, the pellets are 97% pure, which isn’t good enough to create commercial grade thread,” Anota explains. “So it is shipped to our regeneration plant in Europe where it’s turned into ECONYL yarn.”

Since its debut on the market in 2011, ECONYL has quickly established itself as a leading brand of regenerated nylon yarn, working with major players in the fashion and interiors industries. Carpet is just one of the waste materials used to make ECONYL. Other sources include offcuts from the fashion industry and old fishing nets. But while brands are latching onto the latter in their marketing materials thanks to its connection to marine conservation, carpets have understandably flown under the radar. Anota puts it simply: “There’s nothing sexy about old carpet.”

Perhaps, but that old carpet is being transformed into pristine yarn of the highest quality and leading fashion brands are taking notice. As it becomes apparent that climate change is a crisis unfolding in the present and not in some projected future, the urgency of establishing sustainable manufacturing and supply chains is clear. These changes are being driven by consumer demand. Numerous studies in the last five years have demonstrated that people prefer to buy environmentally friendly products. Sustainable fashion makes sense on many levels, and is becoming increasingly important to both brands and the consumers that they want to dress.

Asher Jay (left): National Geographic explorer Asher Jay visited Aquafil’s factory to see exactly how they extract reusable nylon from plastic waste. A prolific artist and conservationist, Jay’s work focusses on humanity’s impact on the environment.
Bonnie Wright (right): Involved in the fight against single-use plastic, Bonnie Wright travelled to Phoenix to see how plastic in carpets is reused instead of becoming refuse. Outside of activism, Wright is an acclaimed actor and director.

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