The concept of recycling has become almost routine; paper turning back into paper to soda bottles being reborn as decking or fleece jackets. At each step along the way to rebirth, the recycled material moves down the utility scale–bottles to composite boards to garden stakes to toothpicks–until, eventually, it winds up in a landfill.

LIFE CYLCE: Consumers are able to recycle their existing nylon carpet every time they replace it. Courtesy Shaw Industries But Shaw Industries has taken recycling up a notch at its new Evergreen nylon recycling plant in Augusta, Ga.

In February at the new plant, Shaw began turning nylon-6 from old carpeting into nylon-6 for new carpeting. What makes this process different is that, unlike the aforementioned soda-bottle-turned-decking that will eventually find its way into a landfill, the nylon-6 recycled at Shaw's new plant could theoretically remain in use as nylon-6 forever.

"There is no loss of aesthetic or performance" in the recycled product, says George Davies, marketing and communications manager for Shaw. And the carpet made from the recycled nylon costs no more than carpet made from virgin nylon, despite the fact that there are costs of recycling the material, he says. Keeping the price the same was critical, says Davies, because, while people say they favor green products, most aren't willing to pay more for them. Nor do they want to sacrifice looks and durability, he adds.

Recycle Time

Green initiatives, such as the nylon recycling plant, are on the upswing because of an increased demand for more post-consumer recycled material content in products for commercial construction markets, says Randy Merritt, Shaw's executive vice president of sales and marketing. And now it's spreading into residential.

"Evergreen will provide the additional nylon recycling capacity to offer consumers the opportunity, for the first time, to choose residential carpet styles produced with significant post-consumer recycled content," Merritt says. And it gives consumers the chance to recycle their existing nylon carpet when they replace it. "Not just once, but every time they choose to replace it," he says.

LIE LIKE ANY OTHER RUG: Recycled nylon-6 carpet looks and performs the same as carpet made from virgin nylon. Courtesy Shaw Industries Ensuring that there would be enough old nylon-6 carpet to keep the plant going 24-7 was one of the biggest obstacles to overcome before it could start up. Apparently once you start a nylon recycling plant, you don't want to shut it down, ever. Cleaning out the goo would be one tedious job.

Shaw acquired half the Augusta plant when it bought the fiber division of Honeywell. A year ago, it bought out the second owner, DSM Chemicals North America. Then it spent about six months setting up a recycling collection system across the country to support it, says Davies.

"We partner with collectors and recyclers," says Davies. A lot of the old carpet comes from large housing projects when the old carpeting is removed. Retail carpet companies also recycle their left over scraps. The collection system takes all kinds of carpet, not just the nylon-6 type. It also accepts nylon-66 carpet and polypropylene carpet as well. Even though nylon-6 is the only type Shaw can use for the plant, in order to create an effective collection system, it had to agree to buy all of it. The other types are sent to companies that recycle them into other things, such as car dashboards. The different types of carpet are sorted with the help of devices that can detect what the carpet is made of.

"The only kind we can't take is wet carpet," says Davies. The water deters the detection devices and the heavier carpet would be too expensive to ship.

Green Goals

Shaw expects to collect about 300 million pounds of carpeting of all kinds each year, with 100 million of that being nylon-6. "From that we hope to get 30 million pounds of the raw material," says Davies.

Once the carpet arrives at the plant, it is shredded and the nylon is separated from backing materials and filler. "We are developing some ways to use the filler that comes from the backing," says Davies. "Some of it can be used as fuel."

This is not Shaw's first "green" initiative. The company also operates a waste-to-energy plant in Dalton, Ga., where it manufactures carpet. It burns manufacturing waste in a gasification process that produces steam to power the plant. "The emission comes out as clean as natural gas," Davies says.