Although buying recycled goods and recycling products is an activity that seems to propel a closed-loop lifecycle, the truth of the matter is that America’s recycling process is a lot more convoluted. The idea of recycling management is often more of an ideal than reality.
Fiber company Aquafil is hoping to change that by opening two new recycling plants on the West Coast in Phoenix, Arizona, and Woodland, California.
In the carpet industry, carpet recycling has existed for decades in that the face fibers (the top layer of yarn) are sheered and recycled as post-consumer fluff. This carpet fluff is then broken down to become nylon pellets that can be reused.
However, carpet is made of three layers, so although recycling the post-consumer fluff is a great step in the right direction, an issue with the recycling process is that the other two layers become waste.
It became Aquafil’s mission to find a supply process for the other two layers to create an entirely closed-loop system.
Recycling All Layers
The first of the two locations opened six months ago in Phoenix while the Woodland location – just west of Sacramento – is expected to open by the new year. The reasoning for the location lies in the western states extensive use of nylon 6 carpet, which makes up the company’s Econyl recycled-content yarns.
At the moment, this process is only being done for nylon 6, but even so, each location will be able to produce 36 million pounds of recycled content per year.
When a carpet is recycled in one of these locations, it is deconstructed so that the three layers are entirely recycled:
- The first layer is melted down to pellets to be processed into new nylon 6.
- The second layer is recycled into elements needed for road construction.
- The third layer becomes consumer products like benches and water bottles.
“Previously when you heard of recycling carpet, people would scrape the face fiber off it, and the rest of it, who knows what happened to it,” says Kathy Long, brand communications manager for Aquafil USA.
“What we’ve been able to do is deconstruct the three parts of the carpet. The face fiber obviously we use the fluff and turn it back into nylon. But [another piece] of the carpet [is] calcium carbonate, and that goes into road construction. Then the other part is the backing, which we sell for engineered plastics – plastic bottles, stuff like that,” Long continues.
This process is more costly, but for the company, which also recycles “ghost” plastics from the ocean, it allows them to operate a fully closed-lifecycle for their nylon 6 products.
Maintaining Material Integrity
A second issue when it comes to recycling is that the process damages the integrity of plastic. A recycled bottle doesn’t become another bottle; it may come back as a disposable razor or pen. The reason is that the polymers are damaged through the process.
For Aquafil, it was important that recycled nylon 6 have the same strength and endurance as virgin material.
Integral to Aquafil’s process is a proprietary method of breaking the nylon down to the chemical makeup.
“[The result is] the same as if it’s virgin nylon because we do a chemical process breakdown,” explains Long. “It’s almost like breaking it down to an element, then build it back up. That’s why you don’t lose anything. ... It’s truly a closed-loop process”
View to the Future
To do this, the recycling centers deconstruct the carpet, melting the carpet face into nylon pellets. Those pellets are then sent to a secondary location where it’s broken down to the elements and built back up, returning to Aquafil as nylon 6 chips, which are used as part of their Econyl line.
Currently, the breakdown process can only be done with Aquafil’s partners in Slovenia, but Long says the plan is to eventually bring everything stateside.
For now, Long says they’re excited to keep moving forward with the plans to open the Woodland location in the next few months and to continue to perfect the process.
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