Until quite recently, J&J Industries, a family-run commercial carpet manufacturer in Dalton, Georgia, used about 45 million gallons of water a year. That sounds like a big number—it works out to approximately 120,000 gallons a day—but it represents a mere fraction of what the company’s local competitors consume. Dalton Utilities, which supplies water to the “Carpet Capital of the World,” estimates that the industry as a whole uses between nine and 12 million gallons a day—a huge amount, especially given the severity of Georgia’s recent droughts (the state has imposed mandatory water restrictions) and the likelihood that climate change will make water an increasingly precious resource in the future.
Last December, however, J&J flipped the switch on a new wastewater-recycling system that promises to drastically cut the company’s water consumption and save money. Not only that, once the system is fully operational, J&J has said that its larger competitors are welcome to visit and see if the system could work for them. “We’ll be saying, ‘Please come over, look at this, ask questions, and if it works for you, go do it,’ ” says Howard Elder, J&J’s director of research and environmental affairs.
The system—the first of its kind in the carpet industry—is not new technology: the military, oil and gas companies, and big pharmaceutical houses have operated similar setups for years. At J&J, the facility is housed in a freestanding 2,500-square-foot metal building, located behind the company’s dye house. (The dyeing process is, by far, the most water-intensive part of carpet manufacturing.) Wastewater from the dye house—which was once sent directly back to Dalton Utilities for treatment—is collected in a tank underneath the building, cooled, stored briefly in a silo next to the new facility, and then pumped into the recycling system, where it undergoes a rigorous purification process. “There are three primary stages of filtration,” says David Keever of Aqua-Chem, the system’s manufacturer. “First, we do a very rough filtration, which takes out large things: pieces of lint, stray pieces of carpet, string, and yarn. The next step is a much finer process, where we filter out particles smaller than a grain of sand. After that second stage, it’s pretty much water and dye particles. During the third stage, the only things that will pass through those filters are pure water particles. It won’t pass salt or dyes or anything like that. The process takes about fifteen minutes. We can handle 163 gallons a minute, which, if you ran the dye house continuously, works out to about 230,000 gallons a day.”
The project began about 15 months ago, when a company called Enviro-Solutions (later bought by Aqua-Chem) approached J&J with an eye toward breaking into a new market. “We had a few conversations with them, and they said they were going to build a demonstration unit in the back of a tractor trailer, and they offered to bring it to our site,” Elder says. J&J, which produces broadloom and modular products for its J+J/Invision and J+J/Templeton brands, offered Enviro-Solutions a near-perfect test case: they had enough manufacturing capacity and technical expertise to test the system—and in turn, to serve as a feasibility model for the carpet industry—but were small enough to execute the experiment in a timely fashion. “They made our decision really easy,” Elder says. “We didn’t have to buy into the concept and trust that they could design a system for us. They just brought one to us, and let us take it for a test drive.”
The entire recycling system, including the building, was budgeted at $800,000. Before committing, Elder and his team began crunching the numbers to see if they made sense. Initial tests on the demonstration unit had determined that the system could successfully recycle between 80 and 90 percent of the dye-house wastewater. The rest would go back to Dalton Utilities. According to Elder’s calculations, the annual savings at the 80-percent level, which he considers a conservative estimate, would be about $205,000; at 90 percent, that number rose to $230,000. There were additional environmental and economic benefits: the recycled water that returned to the dye house was warmer than the utility’s, so considerably less energy was required to bring it up to dyeing temperature. In the end, the numbers were stark and simple. The system was not only environmentally responsible, but it would also pay for itself in about three years.
J&J is still tweaking the process, in advance of visits from its local competitors. Meanwhile, Aqua-Chem has reached out to some of the larger carpet manufacturers in the area, confident that the recycling system will eventually become an industry standard. “Water costs vary from region to region,” Keever says. “Dalton actually has some of the least expensive water that we’ve seen, so if the economics work there, they’re going to work in most places in the United States.”