Publication / Inside EPA
February 28, 2014
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Illinois Bill Marks New EPR Focus On Hard-To-Recycle Polyester Carpet

New state legislation introduced in Illinois would mandate manufacturers of carpet sold in the state to join a carpet stewardship program and place a tax on polyester carpet that would go toward aiding its recycling, marking a new decision by environmentalists to focus on the least recyclable type of carpet rather than push for recycling of all carpet.

The bill, SB 3546, introduced by Illinois state Sen. Melinda Bush (D) Feb. 14 focuses on improving the recycling of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT) carpet, polyester-based carpet types that have become increasingly popular over traditional nylon carpet due to their economical price tag, but which are extremely hard to recycle.

The Illinois bill takes a different path than the precedential extended producer responsibility (EPR) carpet law passed in California in 2010, which established a product stewardship program for all carpet types but has been criticized for its implementation and pace. Many states have viewed the California law as a cautionary tale, and instead of adopting legislation similar to it, recycling advocates in Illinois chose to focus on carpet that is too expensive to recycle.

“Through conversations with businesses we just determined to target the problem material. Nylon is easily recyclable, it didn’t seem to match the mode we were trying to go for,” says a source in the working group established to create the Illinois draft EPR. “In targeting PET we hoped we would be able to gain some awareness and hoped manufactures would think of the end game a little more.” The bill is available on (Doc. ID: 2462801)

EPR is a mandatory type of product stewardship that requires producers to be responsible for the post-consumer management of their products and packaging, including shifting financial and management responsibility away from the public sector.

If passed, the Illinois bill would mandate all carpet manufacturers who sell their products within the state to join a carpet product stewardship group run by the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), or implement one themselves, that would facilitate the recycling of all carpet types. To fund the stewardship program and the recycling of polyester carpet, manufactures would have to place a tax of 15 cents per square yard on any PET and PTT carpet sold within the state.

PET and PTT carpet have increasingly become a problem material for recyclers as its popularity among consumers has grown. The number of people buying PET has increased exponentially from 4 percent of carpet purchases in 2007 to 30 percent of purchases in 2013, according to the text of Sb 3546. At this rate, carpet manufacturers estimate that PET carpet will make up 40 percent of the marketplace by 2015. PET and PTT’s popularity lies in their price, which is much cheaper than nylon carpet. During the economic downturn, recyclers and manufactures saw a shift towards PET purchases, and in turn manufacturers began producing more of it. But the end-of-life material is not cost-effective to recycle because PET is worth less than nylon on the market. Currently 93 percent of PET and PTT carpet ends up in landfills, according to CARE.

“PET carpet cannot be made back into PET carpet like nylon fibers can,” says the working group source. “PET carpet is made from bottle flake, so this process is not closed loop. Once it is collected today, it goes to the landfill. The cost process outweighs its economic viability in the marketplace.”

Determining how to make it economically viable to recycle PET and PTT has been a big topic among carpet recyclers, who are increasingly losing business as the use of nylon carpet goes down.

“The big problem is there is 4 billion pounds of old carpet every year in the U.S. that goes into landfills.” says a CARE source. “As an industry we collect and recycle about 300 million pounds a year; that’s less than 10 percent.”

CARE has made it a goal to find the most economical way to recycle the material into pellets for sale. Industry representatives recently experimented with machines in Austria that heated the left-over PET carpet, elevating its intrinsic viscosity. The end result left them with a pellet that could then be sold, but the process was cost burdensome. There is also not a big demand for PET and PTT. Few commodities use it, and all that do are considered high-end materials like synthetic lumber, non-wovens and geo-textiles.

“When you rip up old polyester carpet, you’ve spent a lot more money doing that than it’s worth,” says the source. “It costs 65 cents in processing costs per pound and the product is only worth 45 cents per pound. What you’re competing against is water bottles . . . the value of those is 65 cents.”

To keep bulky PET and PTT carpet from filling up landfills, most believe government subsidies and incentives are the only way to get more polyester carpet recycled.

“You need some sort of subsidy or environmental fee. Recyclers have to be part of the equation because they can’t even get into the business with the current market structure,” says another CARE source. “A bill [like Illinois’] where there’s a surcharge on carpet as an invoice only on PET would create a good pool of money from which these guys could draw on as they begin their PET business.”

California has a similar method in place for its PET carpet. Those who recycle PET get an extra money bump from the government, as a way to incentivize the process.

Environmentalists and recyclers say they are determined to find a way to make PET and PTT recycling economically viable through both new technological methods and government incentives because they believe polyester carpet use will only increase over time.

“The manufacturing of PET will not go away,” says the CARE source. “It’s accelerating.”