Sourcing It: StarNet Commercial Flooring Cooperative’s Fred Williamson, Director of Special Projects @ ICFF 2007
From the 2007 Metropolis Conference: Design Entrepreneurs: Rethinking Energy
May 21, 2007
Specifying It: Fred Williamson, Director of Special Projects for StarNet Commercial Flooring Cooperative
Fred Williamson: StarNet is an organization of independent commercial flooring contractors based in North America. We are the guys that are the feet on the street, that buy material from various manufacturers, install it and maintain it, and take it back when we’re finished with it, or your client is finished with it.
To be a member in our organization you have to be a professional in the floor covering industry with good credentials. Our members have to sign a code of ethics. In our case there is along list of things like: pay your bills, be good to your suppliers, and be good to your customers. The one I want to focus on today requires them to be very sensitive and focused on the environment. They have a commitment to the Earth, we only have one, and we need to take care of it.
In our little world of commercial floor covering, there are several things we can do. We believe that first and foremost, folks like you who specify the right product for the specific end-use application—its going to serve its purpose and do the job—you are doing the right thing. You are also doing the right thing if you apply proper maintenance to that product so you extend its life and make it look good while it is doing its job. I want to talk about how we can help each other and accomplish some of our mutual goals.
If you look at your typical New York or New Jersey landfill you will find lots of stuff in it. Every year consumers put 4.9 billion pounds of carpet into those landfills across North America, specifically post-consumer carpet waste, both residential and commercial. I don’t know about you, but I pay $3.19 a gallon for gasoline these days and that keeps going up. The largest single raw material in carpet is petroleum, as you know. What you may not be aware of is that when you take used carpet and bury it in a landfill, if you dig it up after a hundred years what you have is a very dirty old carpet. Most of it doesn’t biodegrade, wool does, but the backing materials and the chemicals that are in it go to waste.
Speaking of a waste, we waste 13 trillion BTUs by putting this material in the landfill. We could power 106,000 homes in the United States or save 108 million gallons of gasoline. So why do we do it? Because it is easy not pay attention to it. Our organization is all about finding solutions to specific problems for our clients, and this is both an economic problem and an environmental problem.
When you take anything like carpet to the landfill in our area [Connecticut] either A) the landfill doesn’t take carpet, because it doesn’t biodegrade or B) they charge a very excessive premium to take the product into the landfill. What the industry does is ship it very great distances burning gasoline to take it to another state like western Pennsylvania or the mines down in West Virginia. That’s where the stuff is ending up right now. The cost of disposal is in an upward spiral—you are paying more, and your clients are paying more just to make the carpet go away.
We partnered with an organization called CARE (Carpet America Recovery Effort), which is a non-profit organization formed in 2002. It is comprised of the EPA, carpet manufacturers, non-profit organizations, state government etc. It set out some very aggressive goals. By the year 2012, we hope as a collective organization to reduce the amount of carpet going to a landfill by 40 percent.
My organization, StarNet, only represents the commercial segment of the business. If you divided up the carpet that is made in this country, 70 percent is residential that goes in your homes and mine; and 30 percent goes in the hotels hospitals, buildings, and offices throughout the United States. CARE’s mission is not just to collect carpet, because if you do, you just have a big pile of dirty carpet. You have to find alternative uses. A great one is putting it back into carpet fiber or carpet backing, but there are many other uses for it.
One of the key issues that we saw when we embarked on this venture is that our customers don’t remember what carpet they put on the floor. We have to make it very easy for them so we take back any carpet fiber from anywhere and make sure it doesn’t go to the landfill. Our members—which number 270 service locations throughout North America—become individual carpet reclamation centers. They literally take the carpet back from the job site, rip it out on the refurbishment job, bring it back to a job site and transport it to either a recycler or to an alternative use.
What is exciting is that it has actually spawned a new industry. Old post-consumer carpet has become a raw material for many new businesses. Some uses include carpet pavers, carpet cushion, automotive parts, roofing shingles—we even have hummer turf which is a grass, geo hair that goes along side the highways, there’s sound walls, and back into carpet itself. All of this has spawned new industries which is new jobs and new employment for lots of folks.
We’ve made some strides; we have kept a lot of carpet out of the ground, but not anywhere near the 40 percent we are looking for against those 5 billion pounds we put in. We are making progress and we are pleased with that. But more people need to get on the bandwagon, more designers and more people that get involved in writing specifications. We have made getting involved very easy with our website.
I would like to make a couple points: There is a cost to it, but it is cost neutral to landfill. In other words, we are keeping the cost, it is not costing your client any more. I believe as time goes on it will be cost positive to your clients because there will be new businesses that need the raw material, and the more businesses that need that raw material the more its value will increase. Today we have a number of members in North America who put absolutely zero carpet into landfills, and many more that are getting on board. It’s not perfect yet, the work’s not done, but we have on our website a specification which you can easily download and put in your specs, that says: Carpet that pulls off this job should not go to a landfill, our Construction Specification Institute has a spec that designers and specifiers can plug into their your specifications so that the end user you work for, or the general contractor that is involved, knows that this carpet should not go to landfill.
One of the big problems is that in many cases the general contractor guts the whole building and everything gets thrown away. You can help us with that greatly. Go to the StarNet website if you want more information about CARE. You will see the list of all the different end-use applications. We could really use your help.
Susan S. Szenasy, editor in chief, Metropolis: In your experience in recycling the carpet, is there a system for separating the material so that it’s not just one big lump of the old petrochemical.
Williamson: It has been very much an adventure along the way but some great developments have taken place. Three years ago, to identify a post-consumer carpet, you used an infrared spectrometer which cost about $200,000. It was a big box, and you had to have two guys push it and one guys puts the wand over the carpet. Today we use a product that’s handheld. It looks like a large hairdryer. It’s costs $25,000 and in less than one second we can tell you what type of carpet fiber it is and that’s only because the marketplace is opening up for the raw material to make it salable.
Necessity is the mother of invention, that’s what changes things. Manufacturers began to use PVC initially for carpet tile backing because it’s very durable, it performs, but the other side of that is, what do we do with it? Do we take all that PVC-backed carpet and throw it in the landfill and leave it there? Or do we grind it up and put it back into product again and make it product material and keep it out of the landfill and use it over and over again? That’s what’s happening right now. It’s still noxious and you still don’t want to burn it because it would release chlorine gas if it did burn. But there are new backing materials every day. It’s the same thing in face fiber, like corn products, etc. You still need to cover floors so people are using nylon at this point. Watch, that will change and the bioproducts will be in.
Another point I’d like to make is that two years ago, when this Carpet America Recovery Effort joined as an organization, I expected to find the manufacturers at each others’ throats, but I was delighted to find that everybody saw there was this problem and working together we could come up with a reasonable solution. Don’t forget, in that organization, there is also the government, both state and regional. Some of those governments have moved forward across the country. California requires that if carpet is going to go into a state-funded project, an office building or a school or whatever, it must have 10 percent post-consumer waste in the product. The State of Massachusetts says if you are getting money from the state and you are going to put a new carpet in an old building, the old carpet may not go to a landfill. The legislation requires people to take action. So that’s also driving this collection process because government is stepping in.
Szenasy: What’s your model?
Williamson: I think the model is morphing as we speak but the individual StarNet flooring dealers are on board. They’re out there promoting to their customers, who happen to be designers and end-users and schools and so forth, that there is a viable alternative. You don’t have to put your carpet in a landfill. And it’s not going to cost you any more to reclaim the carpet than it would be if I put it in the landfill. It’s a no-brainer, that’s the key thing.