STEPPING SOFTLY

Eco-conscious carpet manufacturers are introducing VOC-free and recycled ranges with a gentler footprint

STEPPING SOFTLY

If you have ever walked into a freshly carpeted room, you’ll know the distinct scent that comes with it. Kind of freshy, kind of chemically, it’s a smell that announces the decorators have done their job, and suggests that anyone entering the room will be asked to leave their shoes in the doorway. It’s a dying smell, though. At trade fairs and showrooms worldwide, that ‘new carpet’ smell is disappearing as the carpeting industry finds better, healthier manufacturing processes for its products.

The problem with that ‘new carpet’ smell is that it’s produced by the off-gassing of VOCs, which are known to cause rashes, eye irritation and respiratory problems. According to the US non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), most carpeting is made from synthetic fibres derived from non-renewable petroleum-based sources, while carpet backing is usually made from synthetic rubber derived from respiratory irritants such as styrene and butadiene. The harmful fumes from those synthetic rubbers, fibres, adhesives, bonding agents and stain-resistant finishers are what you’re really breathing in.

Those chemicals and compounds are also what makes carpeting difficult to recycle. Unable to separate the fibres from the underlay or the various VOCs from each other, many recycling collector/sorter entrepreneurs don’t bother with the discarded carpets that come their way. ‘Carpet is a highly engineered material,’ Bruce Petrovick, account manager for Dutch manufacturing firm DSM told Fast Company. ‘The way it’s traditionally made, it contains multiple layers, and each layer contains multiple different types of materials.’

The top layer (the part you walk on) is usually made of nylon, polyester or polypropylene, and it’s glued to a PVC or latex backing using a combination of polypropylene and calcium carbonate. It’s a potent mix of chemicals but it does exactly the job it’s supposed to do. As Petrovick puts it, early carpet manufacturers were really only concerned about keeping those layers together. Back then, he says, ‘nobody thought about recycling, or where these chemicals came from. We just made things and threw them away’.

That’s changing. If you’d taken a walk through the Heimtextil 2019 trade fair in Germany this past January, you may have been struck by the wide array of new carpets, and the conspicuous absence of any ‘new carpet’ smell. In halls where the furniture and fabrics exhibitors were showcasing their wares, the themes of health and sustainability were front and centre. Special emphasis was placed on the materials used to manufacture carpeting – and on the processes behind them. Suppliers such as German-based Trevira CS demonstrated recyclable yarns made from reused marine waste, including fishing nets and PET bottles. Trevira’s fabrics were particularly interesting, being both recycled and flame-retardant. Meanwhile, Tecnografica, Essegomma and others presented odourless, breathable, anti-bacterial and anti-allergenic carpeting, while Toucan-T displayed PVC-, latex- and bitumen-free solutions that save around 12 600 tons of waste and 70 000 barrels of crude oil per 10 000 tons of raw material.

There’s a growing realisation across the industry that the carpet-making process needs to change. Everything – from the processes used to create the products, to the fibres, the bonding and the backing – is being reconsidered.

For some, the move to healthier materials and more sustainable manufacturing processes is a natural part of the company’s green vision. For others, it’s driven by looming legislation. In California, for example, lawmakers recently proposed that carpets and rugs containing stain-resistant fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) should be listed as a priority product under the state’s Safer Consumer Products programme. This could ultimately lead to them being outlawed entirely, which may lead to similar restrictions on VOCs and other chemicals.

In response to California’s PFAS proposal, EWG senior scientist Tasha Stoiber said: ‘PFAS-free carpet options already exist in the marketplace, refuting the claim that PFAS chemicals are unavoidable in carpet manufacturing. Currently, PFAS-free carpet production is limited to commercial carpeting only. [The Department of Toxic Substances Control] priority listing will incentivise companies to develop PFAS-free options for residential use, potentially creating new jobs and stimulating innovation.’

Belgotex is driving that innovation in SA. The local flooring manufacturer has a well-earned reputation for ‘green’ business, built on its longstanding use of sustainable product inputs and innovative manufacturing processes. The raw materials for several of its products are derived from post-industrial and post-consumer waste, while its bestselling Berber Point 920 commercial carpet and other needle-punch ranges are made with a blend of polypropylene and recycled eco fibre (made from re-pelletised post-production waste). Erema, Belgotex’s recycling system (installed at a cost of R5 million) enables it to recycle waste fibre back into production, and into the material used in its standard ranges. This reduces carpeting waste rates to close to zero, while offering up to 20% energy savings – and it earned Belgotex’s Pietermaritzburg factory a 6-star Existing Building Performance rating for an industrial facility certification by the GBCSA.

Many of Belgotex’s products use solution-dyed fibres and yarns, created through a dry process that reduces water, chemical and energy consumption. They also contain recycled content made up of post-industrial or post-consumer waste. ‘Being vertically integrated is our competitive advantage,’ Belgotex COO Kevin Walsh told SA Plastics & Rubber Technology magazine. ‘Recycling is aligned with our environmental policy, saves costs and lessens the strain on natural resources. Erema’s new equipment has taken the process to a whole new dimension. Instead of buying in virgin polymer, the new machine will allow us to process excess polypropylene fibre left over from production of needle-punch carpeting into high-quality pellets that can be converted into fibre. In the past, we’ve only used our waste for underfelt. Now we have the option to produce both.’

Belogtex’s solution creates carpets out of recycled material, eliminating waste and driving efficiencies. But what if there were a way of making the carpets themselves recyclable and– by extension – more sustainable? European polypropylene staple fibre producer Beaulieu Fibres International (BFI) may have the answer.

In January 2019 BFI launched UltraBond, a patented polyolefin bonding staple fibre that eliminates the need for latex or other chemical binders to bind non-wovens. This opens the door for manufacturers to cost-efficiently produce 100% polypropylene needle-punch carpets that look, feel and perform like traditional latex-bonded carpets, while reducing their end-of-life environmental impact. ‘Recyclability and achieving a greener, more cost-effective production process without compromising on current performance levels are significant unsolved topics within today’s carpet industry,’ says Karena Cancilleri, Beaulieu VP of engineered products. ‘By eliminating the need for latex and chemical binders through UltraBond, we offer needle-punch manufacturers the breakthrough they have been looking for that boosts environmental and economic sustainability.’

Meanwhile, since early 2017, US distributor Mohawk has been partnering with DSM and tech start-up Niaga to manufacture 100% recyclable carpets, made entirely out of polyester. Mohawk’s award-winning Air.o range closes the loop on the manufacturing process by allowing the customer to return an old carpet to the manufacturer for recycling into a new carpet of a different style. They’re made of only a single material, so they don’t contain any VOCs, are easily recyclable and are hypoallergenic. In the soft flooring market – and especially for families with small children – that last point is especially important.

Automotive manufacturer Volvo is also coming along for the healthier, more sustainable carpet ride. In mid-2018, it unveiled a custom-built version of its XC60 T8 plug-in hybrid SUV, which had several of its plastic components replaced with equivalents containing recycled materials. The car’s carpets were especially interesting: they were made of a mix of fibres taken from PET plastic bottles and recycled cotton off-cuts collected from clothing manufacturers.

The carpets in Volvo’s concept car do not have that ‘new carpet smell’. But then neither do Mohawk Air.o or BFI’s products … or many of the carpets that come out of the Belgotex factory. And consumers – who can now walk into a newly carpeted room and know that they’re not breathing in chemicals – won’t miss that smell at all.

By Mark van Dijk
Images: Gallo/Getty images, Unsplash

Article written by