Illinois Considers Rolling Out the Red Carpet for New Recycling Effort

Recycling aluminum cans and newspapers is one thing, but old carpeting is another matter.

Illinois state legislators are considering a proposal that would help facilitate carpet recycling, but the effort has what one might call wall-to-wall complications.

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When it’s the end of the road for a rug, it’s typically disposed of at a landfill. Only 1% of carpet and padding is recovered for other uses. Carpeting may feel soft and lush, but generally, those fibers are actually plastic polymers.

Mike Grady, lobbyist for Partners for Environmental Responsibility, said companies have developed methods to process old carpeting. They grind the material down to essentially a pulp so it can be restored to plastic feedstock.

“Anything that’s made of plastic starts from plastic feedstock, whether it’s the bottle you use for your Tide detergent, the bottle you drink your bottled water out of, or anything else that’s made of plastic including the plastic siding on your house or  decking for the back of your house,” Grady said. “All of those things can be made from the recycled feedstock that comes from carpet.”

State Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston) sponsored a plan that would roll out the carpet for these companies to come to Illinois.

In a Feb. 1 hearing, Gabel said several recyclers have said they will set up shop in the state — and in the process make good use of vacant warehouse space and create new jobs — if Illinois makes it commercially feasible.

She said the effort would also have a positive environmental impact too.

“The goal of this law is aggressive. It is to achieve a carpet recycling rate in Illinois of 25% by the end of 2026,” Gabel said. “Achieving this goal means Illinois would reduce its greenhouse gas emission by over 146,560 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year.”

Gabel’s Carpet Stewardship Act calls for carpet producers to finance a carpet recycling program. Carpet manufacturers would also finance a nonprofit entity, or clearinghouse, created by the legislation that would be made of carpet producers, retailers, installers, recyclers and waste management programs, who would run the recycling efforts.

With manufactures paying the tab, Grady said carpet recycling would come at no cost or inconvenience to a customer.

“If a carpet installer comes to your house and puts new flooring in, and takes the old carpet and padding out, nothing is going to change for the consumer,” Grady said. “The installer will simply just take it to the same landfill, the same waste transfer station, wherever else they were taking it before.”

The difference would be those places that take the carpet would now be registered as collectors be the state.

“They would then divert onsite the carpet away from the rest of the garbage that comes in, and then the recyclers of carpet would come and haul that stuff off so they could begin breaking it down,” Grady said.

However, Illinois Manufacturers’ Association CEO Mark Denzler says advocates are trying to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes with that promise. He says if producers’ costs rise, it would of course be passed onto customers.

“There’s no two ways about it, nothing’s free in this world … especially at a time where we’re seeing record inflation — we’ve seen inflation rise at 7.5% the last 12 months, the highest it’s been since 1982,” Denzler said. “We think it’s the wrong time to impose new taxes and fees on consumers who want to put carpet in their homes.”

Illinois doesn’t have any carpet manufacturers, but Denzler says a whole industry of carpet dealers and installers would feel pain if carpet sales slide.

California implemented a similar program and Denzler says the data shows prices went up and carpet sales dropped.

“It’s been replaced by floorings that are produced outside the United States. And so this is kind of an anti-American manufacturing bill, that is going to force people to buy cheaper and inferior products that are produced overseas as opposed to carpet that is produced right here in the United States,” Denzler said. “You have to keep in mind that carpet accounts for less than 2% of all landfill in the United States, but it’s very expensive. It’s very heavy.”

If carpet is left out and gets wet, it can’t be reused, another issue that Denzler says make carpet recycling more complicated.

Advocates, though, say Illinois is poised to be a leader in the Midwest in the circular economy, and with the state’s transportation assets could become the regional center for a burgeoning sector.

Grady said legislators should be primed to welcome new jobs in Illinois, versus protecting carpet manufacturers, largely based in Georgia.

The Georgia-based Carpet and Rug Institute did not return a call for comment.

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