Reprinted from  Eco Structure  magazine, Summer 2013 issue.

 Reprinted from Eco Structure magazine, Summer 2013 issue.

Innovations in eco-friendly carpet tiles expand to the recycling of individual components.

Bamboo and cork have long held the sustainable flooring spotlight, but carpet tile is another superstar in that arena—and it continues to outdo itself every year. Nearly two decades after Interface’s late founder and chairman Ray Anderson raised the manufacturing sector’s eyebrows by launching Mission Zero, a company-wide initiative to eliminate its environmental footprint by 2020, healthy competition among the major mills has led to carpet tiles with a greener supply chain. The drive to innovate has been sustainability’s gain, and contributed to robust sales. As of 2012, nearly 2 billion square feet of carpet tile have been installed globally.

Sustainability touches nearly every component in carpet tile. The face-yarn—or topmost—layer of commercial carpeting is typically nylon yarn (type 6 or the stronger 6,6), which boasts durability, resilience, colorfastness, and an affordable price point. These yarns are stabilized by a primary backing, which can range from polypropylene and latex to fiberglass matting, and followed by a chemical performance coat. Sometimes a cushion layer made from polyurethane, rubber, or a thermoplastic composite is integrated with the carpet tile for comfort. Below the cushioning, the secondary backing—or the bottommost layer that is in contact with the floor—was typically polypropylene, latex, or PVC. Today, more sustainable options are available. Finally, the tile must adhere to the floor substrate. Latex or acrylic liquid adhesives—infamous for emitting VOCs or that new carpet smell—used to be the norm, but now the market offers a number of low- or no-VOC adhesive products.

Independent face-fiber producers are identifying and employing responsible technologies and new recyclable resources. When Aquafil collects and recycles discarded fishnets, it is doing more than saving sea turtles. The company reprocesses fabrics, carpet fluff, industrial plastic components, and other production discards to create its Econyl nylon 6 fiber, made entirely from recycled polymer. From 2011 to 2012, Aquafil reported creating 12,000 tons of material for polymer and yarn production from nearly 16,000 tons of collected pre- and post-consumer waste.

Partly composed from corn, DuPont’s biopolymer Sorona fiber, used in Mohawk’s SmartStrand carpets, requires 30 percent less energy to produce than nylon. Universal Fibers continues to make nylon face-fiber products through its EarthSmart Technology, which employs responsible manufacturing processes, conservation, and waste-saving systems. Its Revolve solution-dyed nylon, for example, undergoes a water-free dye process. Invista spent $40 million in research and development to produce the nylon 6,6 ingredient adiponitrile in a manner that reduces the energy consumption and environmental impact of the manufacturing process.

Vertical integration among the carpet giants—through acquisition of independent producers and research investments—has further expanded the green tile industry. “Controlling our product every step of the way allows us to reduce cost and turnaround time, and ensure quality,” says John Stephens, Shaw Contract Group’s vice president of marketing. “But it also allows us to control where to invest in product and process improvements.”

To date, many of the vertically integrated mills in the U.S. have developed proprietary secondary backings that boast a minimum of 50 percent pre- and post-consumer recycled content and superior performance. Some of these backings can be partially or fully recycled. Examples include Mannington Commercial’s rEvolve; Shaw’s EcoWorx; and Interface’s GlasBac, which can be reclaimed a second time to create GlasBacRE backing; Tandus Flooring’s Ethos, which utilizes automotive windshield and safety glass; and Bolyu’s Nexterra, composed of recycled glass and PET bottles.

Adhesives have also made innovative strides. Installers do still slather floors with latex-, acrylic-, or water-based liquid adhesive, which can damage flooring substrates and generate further waste come renovation time. But in recent years, the soft-flooring companies have steadily introduced sophisticated systems that drastically reduce the environmental impacts of this. Early on the scene was Interface’s TacTiles, stickerlike PET squares that connect the tiles to each other, as opposed to the floor. Tandus launched TandusTape while J+J/Invision last year unveiled TileTabs; both systems create floating floors.

Shaw’s LokDots, introduced in late 2011, uses a staple gun–like applicator to dispense adhesive dots that attach the tiles directly to the floor, as opposed to creating a floating floor. Given the right conditions, approximately 1.1 pounds of LokDots do the work of 35 pounds of liquid adhesive, resulting in an estimated 97 percent reduction of installation materials, according to Shaw. Architects should confirm that these adhesive alternatives are compatible with a carpet tile’s backing.

Third-party certifications have helped spur these sustainability developments. Green Label Plus is a well-known indoor air quality standard for carpet that was conceived by the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI). The nonprofit trade association later initiated NSF/ANSI 140 Sustainability Assessment for Carpet, a more comprehensive evaluation and certification program. “In the early 2000s, a number of organizations out there were trying to develop standards, but they valued different parts of the sustainability matrix,” says CRI president Werner Braun. “The ANSI standard looks at every element from water or energy consumption per square yard to air pollutants from manufacturing, up and down the supply chain.” Established with NSF International, the standard also factors in bio-based, recycled, or environmentally preferred materials in the product, as well as end-of-life management and reclamation.

Spearheading efforts in this latter area is Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), a government and industry nonprofit that promotes landfill diversion and carpet recycling. Since its inception in 2002, CARE reports that its members have recycled an estimated 2.3 billion pounds of post-consumer carpet in the U.S. back into carpet fiber, cushion, or backing, as well as into engineered resins and alternative fuel. CARE also seeks outlets that could use recycled carpet material in alternative ways, such as sound-barrier walls and soil-erosion barriers.

Of course, all of this is moot if the carpet tile’s life cycle isn’t fully met. “If you have a product that has a design life of 10 years, but you don’t clean and maintain that carpet properly, it could wear in two or three years,” CRI’s Braun says. “You’ll have tripled or quadrupled the environmental footprint then.” CRI posts its own Seal of Approval–certified cleaning products and vacuums on its website to advocate effective and environmentally sensitive maintenance methods.

In addition to CRI, ANSI, and CARE, organizations continue to share information on carpet sustainability online. The transparency trend has attracted attention from many of the big mills, which have started sharing their product reports and certifications. Third party–verified Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), which document a product’s environmental impact throughout its life cycle, are also making a splash. Most, if not all, of the major commercial mills have expressed a commitment to completing and releasing EPDs this year. This development can have far-reaching effects, from helping architects make more informed decisions to creating a healthier planet overall.