When most flooring manufacturers talk about sustainability, they focus on what happens to their flooring at the end of its life. This means your flooring purchase becomes shaped in terms of what will happen to your carpet when you’ve finished using it, rather than the use you’ll get from it during its lifetime.
Sustainability concerns become tied up with the percentage of recycled content in different flooring types, but this is only one aspect of sustainability.
Cushion vs. Hardback
Some hard-backed carpet products are recyclable because they contain PVC. But the PVC in carpet tiles can cause problems during the life of the carpet, including a floor compatibility issue known as plasticizer migration.
Even when hard-backed products avoid using PVC, they can still cause problems - trapping moisture in the sub-floor, and creating damp conditions conducive to the growth of mold and mildew.
In contrast, open cell cushion backing avoids flooring compatibility problems as the tile backing is non-reactive (meaning there’s no risk of a chemical reaction with traces of adhesives left behind on your sub-floor). It’s also best for moisture management: moisture can transfer through the carpet tiles and evaporate away at the tile seams.
When Reuse Can Be Better Than Recycling
Importantly, open cell cushion backing is able to prolong the life of your carpet tiles by 40 to 50% over hard-backed products.
A longer-lasting carpet means that reuse is a real possibility. Your carpet could be reused within your organization (like moving carpet tiles from an executive office into a meeting room), or by charitable organizations like PlanetReuse or Habitat for Humanity through manufacturers’ take-back programs.
For example, in 2015 a 20,000-square-foot installation of Milliken carpet in the Minneapolis Convention Center was replaced, and the reclaimed carpet was sent to Habitat for Humanity for repurposing. Every tile was reused, and the convention center’s old carpet is now used in more than 400 new spaces for local small businesses.
Reusing carpet requires less energy than recycling old carpet, and could therefore be viewed as a more sustainable approach. It’s also true that a carpet with a high recycled content will naturally break down faster than one with a lower recycled content.
By prioritizing durability and performance over recycled content, your organization gets a carpet that lasts longer and has more end-of-life options than simply being recycled.
End Of Use
The other end-of-life option for your carpet is burn-for-energy. This is the end-of-life alternative to recycling (after you have reused your carpet as much as possible). Obviously, manufacturing or recycling carpet uses energy, so burn-for-energy means that 85% of the organic material in your carpet is cleanly converted into energy, which goes back into the power grid to power the manufacturing or recycling of new carpet.
Defining Sustainability for Your Organization
There are many ways to be sustainable, and the right one for you will depend on your organization’s values.
In many cases, there’s no need to fixate on recycled content to hit your green targets when other sustainable options may be a better fit for your organization. It could be better for you and your employees to focus on maximizing the life, instead of the end of life, of your carpet.
Recycling your carpet is just the final chapter in what is (hopefully) its long lifestory. It’s like the old cliché says: “It’s the journey, not the destination”.