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Thirsty consumer: Mohawk Industries quietly helps recycle America's empty beverage bottles.

Recycling advocates can rightly point out that too many discarded PET bottles e winding up in trash cans or along highways and sidewalks where they are trampled underfoot.

Ironically, a healthy percentage of the PET bottles actually recycled in the United States may also end up being trampled underfoot, but in this case the result is quite intentional.

For more than a decade, one of the largest single consumers of No. 1 PET bottles has been a carpet and cushion fabric plant in Summerville, Ga., now owned and operated by Mohawk Industries, which is based in Calhoun, Ga.

The plant takes in an enormous amount of baled No. 1 PET bottles and ultimately produces woven fabric or cushion material that finds its way into homes and other buildings throughout North America.

A NEW FABRIC. Summerville, Ga., has been the home of PET recycling facilities for decades and served as the headquarters for the former Image Carpets, which was founded in 1976.

According to Phil Cavin, who has been with Image Carpets since 1987, that company opened its recycled plastic-to-carpet fibers plant in 1989, originally requiring clean recycled PET flake as feedstock.

"We were primarily a polyester carpet company and we had been buying our fiber from a lot of different sources when, in 1988, we decided to take a very big risk and decided to make our own fibers out of recycled PET chips," says Cavin.

Partly because sourcing sufficient amounts of clean R-PET flake became difficult, the company developed a wash line in the early 1990s. "That allowed us to buy dirty flake," says Cavin.

Buying dirty flake was a good move for Image, but not without problems, says Roland Jones, technical procurement director for Mohawk Industries. "We had to trust other people to do our sorting and grinding for us, and most of these suppliers were not equipped or trained to deal with the PVC issue," Jones says.

He says the company "decided to integrate backwards a little bit more a couple of years later when we decided to install a grinding operation that would allow us to buy bales."

Once the facility had developed a grinding, sorting and washing that it judged to be satisfactory, it quickly expanded its operations.

"By 1994 or so, we were pretty much buying 100 percent bales and really became instrumental in using recycled PET bottles to make carpet products," says Cavin.

Jones says in the early 1990s, bales of PET were quite a challenge to deal with. He says, "Not only were the bales full of things other than PET bottles, you had to deal with basecups and aluminum caps with PVC liners, and PVC bottles were much more prevalent."

While Jones says many of the early problems with baled PET bottles have been addressed, today there are new, more technically challenging problems that Mohawk must confront in order to successfully process bales of recycled PET bottles and containers.

Cavin says the challenge of using recycled PET flakes is that "polyester is difficult to dye" during the carpet coloring process. "The bad news is that it can be tough to work with in that stage; the good news is those same qualities make for a stain-resistant end product," he comments. "So that was kind of our niche as Image Carpet--a recycled-content product with great stain resistance."

The company's success in this niche caught the attention of the larger manufacturer Mohawk Industries, which purchased Image Carpets in 1999.

"Since that time, Mohawk has taken the ball and run with it," says Cavin, who is now national procurement director with Mohawk, working out of the Summerville plant.

Although Mohawk draws little attention to the recycling aspect of its operations on its Web site or in its promotional materials, the company is quietly one of the foremost consumers of PET bottles year after year.

The practice fits into a corporate environmental policy statement that reads in part, "Mohawk's strong focus on reducing, recycling and reuse have made us an industry leader."

SPINNING A TALE. The Summerville plant produces a variety of materials on several production lines, with carpet fibers being the lead product and cushion and pillow fill also made from the stream of post-consumer PET bottles.

The company purchases bales of commingled clear and green PET to produce both natural and green threads or cushion material. The plant, located in northwest Georgia, not far from the Alabama border, contains the grinding, sorting and extrusion lines that, combined, produce all of the recycled polyester fiber Mohawk uses.

The company's manufacturing process begins by breaking the bales apart with large trommels. The bottles then ride on conveyors that pass by manual sorters who remove obvious unwanted items, such as metal and aluminum cans, dark-colored plastics and other non-PET bottles that have made it into the bales. The bottles then travel through electronic devices that can tell the difference between PET and PVC, after which air jets remove the PVC bottles from the conveyors, ejecting them into a separate area. The PET bottles are then automatically separated by color just before they are ground in to flakes.

The PET flakes are washed and dried before passing through additional equipment that removes flakes of metal and aluminum cans that were missed during the initial sortation.

The clean PET flake is then processed through extruders that melt the plastic and force it through dies called spinnerets to forms the fibers. The fibers are drawn, crimped, heat set and then baled. The fiber bales are then transported to the next step in the carpet making operation and will eventually become Mohawk finished carpet of fiberfill for home furnishings.

In Summerville, Mohawk successfully converts enormous numbers of bales of post-consumer No. 1 PET bottles compressed by recyclers into a saleable end product.

NUMBER ONE. When it comes to recycling No. 1 PET plastic bottles, Mohawk's Summerville plant has a good grip on being the No. 1 consumer of the commodity in the United States.

"We buy about 215 million pounds per year of recycled bottles from all over the country, and even bring some in from Mexico and Canada," says Cavin.

All of those bottles eventually produce some 145 million pounds of carpet and 20 million pounds of fiberfill, accounting for 85 percent of all the polyester fiber produced domestically by Mohawk Industries. All fibers produced in Summerville are made from recycled material.

(Although it takes 215 million pounds of material to produce that 165 million pounds of carpet and fiber fill, many of those "lost" pounds are also recycled elsewhere, thanks to the sorting process at the Summerville plant.)

The 215 million pounds of PET Mohawk consumes annually make it the largest single corporate consumer of No. 1 PET bottles in the country and possibly in the world.

According to Cavin, around 1.1 billion pounds of recycled PET were collected in the United States in 2005. In the last four years, the amount collected has barely kept up with demand.

"We've been in a supply and demand crunch in the last four years or so," says Cavin. "Asia is buying about 350 million pounds annually now--close to about one-third of what is baled here in the U.S. They are our largest competitor for material."

Cavin says there are many issues to consider concerning the future of No. 1 PET bottle supply and demand. "Supposedly, China has virgin resin capacity coming online soon, so in another six to 12 months, demand from there could slow," he remarks. "But if you talk to five different people about the export market, you'll get five different answers about it," Cavin adds.

SUPPLY SIDE. For Mohawk, concerns are not chiefly on the viability of its process of demand for its fabric, but rather on the collection and supply of No. 1 bottles. "The scales are even now, and actually there are companies that would like to add capacity to use more recycled PET, but they are afraid to do so because there is such a bottle shortage," says Cavin.

As a company, Mohawk Industries has largely refrained from entering the political fray in terms of deposit-and-return laws and other legislative proposals to raise the 22 percent PET bottle recycling rate.

But Cavin notes that the effectiveness of deposit laws is hard to miss when looking purely at collection numbers. "PET bottle recovery often ranges from 5 to 10 percent in non-deposit states, and it can be as high as 60 to 80 percent in states where PET bottles are included."

After hitting a low of 18 percent, the PET bottle recycling rate has crept back up, but some recycling advocates say this is primarily because California has added water bottles to its deposit-and-return program and because New York City's curbside program is back up and running. "I'm proud to see the numbers go back up, but I'd feel better if it was because of a new and innovative effort nationwide and not the result of one or two programs expanding," says Cavin.

Nationally, Cavin says PET bottle recyclers continue to grapple with the challenge of capturing empty bottles that are consumede away from home. "If you stop 100 people on the street, 99 would probably say recycling is the right thing to do," he says. "But taking the step to hang on to an empty bottle and walk or ride home with it until you can place it in your recycling bin--that's another thing."

Whether PET bottles can reach a point like aluminum used beverage containers (UBCs) where a scale price can provide an incentive is still questionable, but not out of the question.

"They're worth about a penny per bottle now," says Cavin--probably not a price that would allow an across-the-scale infrastructure to emerge. But should oil prices stay high, and PET prices soar along with them, a further increase in recycling value is ossible.

No matter how the collection process may evolve, Cavin says Mohawk is committed to the sustainable process it uses.

"Mohawk is very committed to the environment and very proud of this plant," he says. "Mohawk is the largest flooring company in the world, and they have run this plant to capacity since the day they bought it. They have continued to support it and make this plant a recycling showcase, and as a company it's something that makes us all proud."

WALL-TO-WALL RECYCLING

In addition to its consumption of millions of pounds of PET bottles annually. Mohawk Industries, Calhoun, Ga., is also exploring ways to recycle old carpets and padding into its new products.

The company is one of more than a 20 corporate members of the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), based in Dalton, Ga.

That organization describes itself as "a voluntary initiative of the carpet industry and government to prevent carpet from burdening landfills." The group says its mission is to "foster market-based solutions for recovering value from discarded carpet."

By developing new collection methods and end markets for end-of-life carpet, the organization has been trying to raise the amount of carpeting recycled in the United States each year.

According to a CARE news release, "In 2005, reported recycling and diversion of post-consumer carpet doubled from 2004, bringing the total amount of carpet diverted from landfill to 483.7 million pounds since CARE started calculating the numbers in 2002. Of the total of 224.6 million pounds of post-consumer carpet reported to be diverted from landfill in 2005. 1943 million pounds was reported being recycled. Compared to 2004, this represents a 97 percent increase in recycling."

More information is available at www.carpetrecovery.org

The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be reached by e-mail at btaylor@gie.net.
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Title Annotation:plastic beverage bottles
Comment:Thirsty consumer: Mohawk Industries quietly helps recycle America's empty beverage bottles.(plastic beverage bottles)
Author:Taylor, Brian
Publication:Recycling Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
Words:1947
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