Except maybe when you spill on one.
But like so many everyday things that we take for granted, carpets have a story to tell, and it’s becoming an intriguing sustainability story. Shaw Floors, the world’s largest carpet manufacturer, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, recycled 121 million pounds of used carpet last year– reclaiming it from homes or offices, breaking it down into caprolactam, a compound which is a building block of nylon, and then redeploying the nylon to make new carpet.
The carpet pictured above is branded as EcoWorx. It’s a PVC-free, fully recyclable alternative to traditional carpet tile, designed from the get-go to be broken down and remanufactured into itself again and again. More than half of the carpet sold by Shaw is now certified as Cradle to Cradle, the protocol developed by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry.
In Shaw’s sustainability report, Buffett writes:
Companies today have to consider what kind of impact their decisions will have on both their businesses and the planet – ten, twenty, thirty or forty years from now. And when in doubt, it’s wise to err on the side of the planet.
Nice. Recently, I met with Paul Murray, Shaw’s vice president of sustainability, and David Wilkerson, director of sustainability, to talk about Shaw. It’s a big company–revenues topped $4 billion last year and Shaw employs about 25,000 people, most in manufacturing jobs in the southeast, near its headquarters in Dalton, Ga., the world’s carpet capital. Like its peers, Shaw is enduring hard times because its business is closely tied to the real estate industry; its sales have fallen from a peak of $5.8 billion in 2006.
Shaw has embraced green practices since the 1990s and got formally organized around sustainability about five years ago when Vance Bell became CEO. “A successful sustainability group within a corporation needs support from the top,” Wilkerson said. Bell talks easily about the “triple bottom line” and notes that even during the downturn Shaw has invested in projects like Re2E (reclaim to energy), a plant that turns old carpet into fuel.
[Shaw's work has been overshadowed by the sustainability pioneer in the carpet industry, Ray Anderson of Interface, who died last summer. In case you missed it, here's Paul Hawken's eloquent tribute to Ray.]
Changing the way an industry operates is never easy. Traditional carpet is made from petrochemicals–the surface is typically nylon, the backing is primarily polypropylene. When carpets wear out, most are sent to a landfill. In 2010, about 3.4 billion pounds of carpets were discarded and only about 338 million pounds were diverted or recycled, according to the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), an industry group. Partly that’s a matter of habit, partly it’s economics and partly it’s because breaking carpet down into its component parts isn’t simple. “It’s more like unmaking a layer cake than melting down a bowl of Jello,” Wilkerson said.
For recycling to grow, Shaw and the carpet industry need to both figure out how to recapture plenty of old carpet (assuring ample supply) and find uses for the material at costs that make economic sense (assuring ample demand). Shaw, its execs say, has been working the problem from both ends.
On the supply side, Shaw works with about 50 regional recyclers. A big obstacle for consumers is cost. According to the Carpet America Recovery Effort, “it will likely cost between 5 cents to 25 cents per pound of old carpet to recycle.” (Carpet typically weighs about 4-5 pounds per square yard). Some people have no choice but to pay because their local landfills no longer accept carpet.
On the demand side, Shaw reopened its Evergreen Nylon Recycling plant in Augusta, Ga., in 2007. (It had acquired the facility, which had been shuttered for several years, in 2006.) The plant processes a popular type of nylon, known as Nylon 6, melting it down, and turning it into virgin-quality nylon. That’s the best economic use for old carpet. Alternatively, post-consumer product can be turned into other plastic products, from chairs to auto parts. A third option is to make the carpet into fuel.
“The BTU content of this material is about 25% higher than coal, and it’s about 35% cleaner in terms of emissions,” Wilkerson said.
All of this is a work in progress, and the economics are shaky. Until the value of old carpet rises to the point where consumers are rewarded for recycling, most will probably throw it away. On the plus side, demand for the EcoWorx and a hardwood product called Epic which is also cradle-to-cradle certified continues to grow. Commercial customers, influenced by LEED building standards, are increasingly demanding environmentally-preferable product.
“If you don’t have recycled content on the commercial side, you’re at a competitive disadvantage,” said Murray, who joined Shaw after leading sustainability efforts at furniture-maker Herman Miller.
The bottom line: Shaw can fairly claim the mantle of industry leader. “We reclaim and recycle more carpet than the rest of the industry combined.” said Wilkerson. But there’s lots of work still to do.
This morning, at the Renewable Energy Finance Forum (REFF-West) in San Francisco, I announced a new $75 million investment to create an initial fund with Clean Power Finance that will help up to 3,000 homeowners go solar. This is our second investment in residential solar, and we’ve now invested more than $850 million overall to develop and deploy clean energy.
As we said when we made our first residential solar investment, we think it makes a lot of sense to use solar photovoltaic (PV) technology—rooftop solar panels—to generate electricity right where you need it at home. It greens our energy mix by using existing roof space while avoiding transmission constraints, and it can be cheaper than drawing electricity from the traditional grid.
Purchasing a solar system is a major home improvement, but the upfront cost has historically been one of the biggest barriers for homeowners. Solar installers across the country don’t always have the resources to find financing for customers, or the capital to provide it themselves. And for investors like Google, banks and others, it can be difficult to enter a fragmented solar market with many companies, and get connected to individual homeowners.
That’s where Clean Power Finance comes in. They’ve developed an open platform that connects installers with investors like Google to provide financing to homeowners. Solar installers sign up with Clean Power Finance to get access to the company’s comprehensive sales solutions, including consumer financing from investors, like the Google fund. This enables installers to sell more systems and grow their business. The installer builds the system, the investor owns it (in this case, Google), and homeowners pay a monthly payment for the system, at a price that’s often less than paying for energy from the grid. Maintenance and performance are taken care of by Clean Power Finance and its network of installers.
Owned by Google, operated by Clean Power Finance, and installed by American Vision Solar, the Colin family of Santa Clarita, Calif. has a 4.14 kW solar system
This innovative and scalable model makes business sense for Google, Clean Power Finance, solar installers and homeowners too. We’re excited to be one of the first investors to partner with Clean Power Finance and enable the company to continue forging strong relationships with solar installers (like the ones they announced last week with SunLogic, California Solar Systems, American Vision Solar—learn more on Clean Power Finance’s website). By making financing more readily available, the Clean Power Finance platform has the potential to lower costs and accelerate adoption of solar energy.
We’ve already installed a 1.6MW rooftop solar installation at the Googleplex back in 2007. Now, through Clean Power Finance and our previous investment this year, we’re hoping to have an even larger impact. We look forward to watching our funding help more than 10,000 homeowners generate clean electricity from the sun.
Posted by Rick Needham, Director of Green Business Operations