In the Midwest, there are few things as precious as a young boy’s first potato gun. It’s crafted with diligence and care out of PVC. The choice of hairspray is quite possibly the most important decision that any young person can ever make. Extra hold or rejuvenating spray? And then comes that one memorable day when the sun breaks through the clouds just right, and a potato soars through the air. Could there be a better vessel for a flying potato to be launched out of than PVC?
Jeff Galloway, director of carpet tile operations for Cartersville, GA-based Shaw company, says yes. His reasoning is simple: while PVC can be reused to make a fine potato gun, there is little else that it can be recycled into, particularly when it comes to carpeting. “About 10 years ago my company started looking for a product that met our sustainability requirements,” says Galloway. Those 10 years led Galloway to polyolefin. “PVC tends to be more of a rubber base or feels more like rubber. Polyolefin is made out of things similar to water bottles.”
For the past 25 years, PVC carpet backing has dominated the market. But choosing a PVC-based carpet tile backing, it turns out, is similar to chiseling words into a stone tablet: once it has been done, there is no going back.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the product is faulty; it’s just limited in its use. And in a world that is becoming more green conscious, many facility managers have begun shopping for products that are more environmentally sensitive.
“With traditional PVC carpet, the PVC cannot be extracted from the carpeting, and it contaminates the yarn. So even if you grind the carpet up and start to separate the parts, the yarn is contaminated and can’t be used,” says Galloway. Once the life of the carpet has expired, there is nothing left for it except to be loaded on a truck and unceremoniously dumped into a landfill.
Being green sensitive, Galloway couldn’t resolve the thought of constantly dumping used carpet into landfills, it simply was not an option. So he asked a simple question. “What are we recycling in this country today? We recycle newspapers, magazines, and soda bottles. It’s probably not practical to make carpeting out of newspapers or magazines, but what about plastics?” The result was a combined effort between Dow Chemical and Shaw to develop a new material that could viably be used as carpet backing.
Polyolefin is currently the backing Shaw applies to its carpets. It is made in a dry process that uses post-industrial content-mainly plastics-to create the backing. “Think of taking a carpet square and putting it into a sausage grinder. What’s coming out the end are little chunks of material. Then we take those pieces through another grinder, which takes it to smaller components. Once it goes through the second process, the fiber gets broken loose from the backing and gets placed in a separate bin,” says Galloway. Once the fibers have been separated from the backing, the recycling process begins. All of the components get melted down and are then remade into new fibers and new backing.
The process is not perfect, but according to Galloway, that doesn’t matter. “We have some small amounts of contamination in each of the bins, but since they’re both plastics, it doesn’t hurt our process. But because of the nature of the two materials, they’re compatible. It’s all about the chemistry.”
Not only is a polyolefin carpet backing environmentally friendly, it’s also easy to install and tear out, and it’s stronger than PVC. “Polyolefin backing is 40% lighter than a PVC backing,” says Galloway. The light weight feel of the carpet backing usually takes people by surprise, but Galloway compares the sensation to cars, saying that 30 years ago cars were heavy pieces of machinery. Today, however, cars are lighter and more maneuverable, yet they’re still just as safe.
Aside from the weight, the overall strength and quality of carpet backing should be evaluated by facility managers before they make a choice. “We’ve also performed strength tests on the polyolefin backing. We do a tensile test and a tear test. The polymer is five times stronger than PVC in the tensile test, and eight times stronger in the tear test. Think of it like titanium versus steel. Titanium is lighter, but stronger,” says Galloway.
These strength indicators have a direct correlation to another concern of facility managers: IAQ. According to Galloway, there’s no need to worry about carpet fibers in the air stream. “The lamination strength-that’s the ability for the carpet to hold the fibers in place-is actually higher on a polyolefin backing than on a PVC backing. Additionally, the product is low in VOCs. So internally, there are no issues with air contamination once the product has been installed.”
There are numerous benefits available to a facility manager who decides to use a polyolefin carpet backing, but PVC still retains a large segment of the market. Why? The most obvious answer is that polyolefin has only been on the market for five years.
Additionally, the process to manufacture polyolefin is long and expensive. It took Galloway and his company 10 years to develop the new material. That translates into an investment that requires years of research and development before the product is ready to bring to customers.
PVC has reached a crossroad. Like anyone who has fired a potato gun and then ran with a heavy PVC tube over his shoulder, facility managers also have to decide whether it is worth it to hang onto PVC or leave it in a ditch and try for something new. Sure, PVC will always make a potato sail through the air, but a lighter gun may be easier on the back.