Wednesday, November 14, 2007

An Eco-Warrior’s Victory: Soda Bottle Carpeting

The eco-gold star for manufactured products is “cradle-to-cradle” - zero waste. These concepts equate waste with inefficiency; all products can and should be designed to be reused, recycled, and reformatted with no waste whatsoever.
Unfortunately, for the average homeowner trying to do right by the environment and the pocketbook, such cradle-to-cradle options rarely exist. Therefore while we wait for a new zero-waste paradigm shift to kick in, imperfect choices need to be made.

As new empty-nesters, one of our first to-do items was to replace our den carpet, frayed, snagged, and stained after twenty years of loyal kid duty. The simple way to accomplish this would have been: go to the store, pick carpet, and give them our visa card. The complicated way: go to the carpet store and request a natural, non-synthetic carpet manufactured in an environmentally responsible way. (The carpet industry is notorious for using toxic chemicals which pollute the manufacturing site’s watershed; once installed new carpets can off-gas, known to make people sick.) The salesperson was quite incredulous.

“You mean you want wool?!”
Wool, the material that rugs have been woven from for millennia, is now considered undesirable because it’s harder to clean than synthetics, and more expensive to boot. Doesn’t it seem somewhat ill-advised to buy something more expensive and harder to maintain, which the salesperson is deadset against selling to you … in the name of environmental stewardship? What is an eco-consumer to do?

After showing us many carpets, a light went off in the salesperson’s head. “Wait a minute! We have carpet made from soda bottles!” She ushered us over to another aisle, where indeed there were dozens of choices of carpets made from PET. PET - polyethylene terephthalate, not exactly a cozy name - is essentially recycled 2-liter plastic bottles. Ironically, manufactures do not broadcast that this product is made from recycled plastic, because they think it will turn customers off. Of course that is exactly why I wanted to buy it. About 40 two-liter soda bottles are recycled per square yard of carpeting, about 500 for typical 9 x 12 room. It is indistinguishable from any carpet I have ever seen, costs less, and has a coating which actually makes it stain-repellent. Win-win-win. It is designed to be recyclable after is wears out, too. This is hard to guarantee 20 years in advance, but it’s exciting that manufacturers are starting to think longer term and develop end-games for their products. This doesn’t help with the old carpet, though. It had to be put out on the curb for trash day, to be hauled to a landfill. No one I know has come up with a use for worn-out carpets, not even on our beloved NWPhillyfreecycle list.

But wait! It turns out that carpet padding is manufactured from recycled carpets, just not mine. Next eco-inquisition concern: is it good or bad to have this reformatted material in your house? It is bad because it reuses all those nasty chemical-laden carpets and brings them back into your house. But it is good because it takes all those wasted materials and reuses them. What is a green consumer to do? My answer was found at the Washington DC Co-Op AmericaGreenFest last October. This was a fabulous opportunity to view an amazing variety of green products, from clothing to food to household design. I happened by a booth devoted to green floor covering and discovered carpet padding manufactured from recycled natural materials. A quick call to my carpet store with the information got the ball rolling, but it quickly rolled right back into my court. Their supplier would have an enormous up-charge to order it. Was this worth it to me? How many battles does one want to fight just to get the damn carpet laid? But by then storeowner was getting into it, and he called back a day or two later to announce that his supplier could get a comparable pad, and it would only cost slightly more. That was a sweet victory.

Anyone else have a eco-warrior tale to share?


Ken said...

If you REALLY want a Cradle to Cradle Product you need to look for the Cradle to Cradle Certified(CM) logo. Http:// is the company that does this assessment.

Be careful equating "simple recycling" with Cradle to Cradle. You have to look at WHAT is being recycled not just that something is recycled - period.

You could argue the PET used in soda bottles was never designed for use underfoot in carpeting. What about the dyes and other finishes applied by the carpet company to the soda bottle plastic? Are these chemicals safe for their intended use?

And what happens when your carpet is to be replaced? Is there an end of life strategy?


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ken. I guess I didn't mention the product claims to be recyclable. I am dubious about that, since hopefully the carpet will last a generation, but I am encouraged that they're thinking about end-of-product life.
Re: buying certified products, I considered this purchase going with the best of imperfect choices. Mainstream carpet stores don't know anything about cradle-to-cradle and one must deal with real vendors in your area.
Good question about the chemicals. It is really hard for consumers to get the info they need to make these decisions.
In any event, since most carpets are now made of synthetic fibers anyway, I figured better reused than virgin synthetics. But that's my reasoning. If people have access to greener carpets, please share the info! and the how-to!