August 2005

Carpet climbs the recycling rate charts

Carpet padding or carpet cushion represents one of the most efficient closed-loop recycling efforts in the nation. Recycled carpet padding now accounts for 80 percent of all carpet padding sold in the U.S., and over 50 percent of all discarded padding is recycled for use in new pad.

The actual carpet, however, is another story entirely. In 2002, almost 4.7 billion pounds of carpet were discarded in the U.S. Carpet usually accounts for over 2 percent of all municipal waste by volume. According to industry estimates, only 3.8 percent of the total discarded carpet was recycled.

Shaw Industries Inc. is doing its part to help remedy the situation. A privately held subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Shaw has been working with engineers from Siemens Building Technology to create a new power plant. The plant would be fueled by the 16,000 tons of waste carpets and 6,000 tons of sawdust (from wood flooring) produced each year.

The plant itself costs upwards of $10 million, but Shaw predicts that it will save $2.5 million annually. Those savings would be derived from recovering the funds that would have been spent on traditional fuel to run one of the main factories. According to Gary Nichols, Shaw’s corporate energy manager, a pound of carpet has nearly the same energy potential as an equal amount of coal. Environmentally speaking, the plant will emit about as much pollution as it would by utilizing natural gas.

The plant works by feeding carpet scraps through a massive shredder. From the shredder, the scraps are sent to a gassifier, which converts the scraps into a synthetic gas. The gas is filtered through two pollution-control processes, only after which it is sent to the factory where it will be burned to fuel the production of new carpet.

J&J Industries, one of Shaw’s competitors, has been watching Shaw’s progress closely. According to Howard Elder, J&J’s research director, “Everybody is watching and we’ve been looking for years to find a way to convert waste carpet that makes sense.”

He also says, however, that companies will only follow suit if it makes economic sense. Given the rising cost of energy, it would seem that the plant is a sound investment.

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