Tarkett and Aquafil close the loop on carpet tiles

December 2019

With the current surge in environmental concern, the metaphysical question of nature or nurture is worth revisiting once again in the context of materiality. Given the current notoriety of plastic, natural materials seem to be what people are leaning to. Yet, plastic is also complicatedly indispensable because of its extensive presence, its durability, its flexibility, and its well-established production lines. To compete with the market upsurge in natural materials, how can one alter the malign impression of plastic underpinning contemporary life, while aligning with the ever-growing concern for eco-friendliness?

According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only 14% of packaging plastic is recycled, while the unrecycled plastic is worth US$80-120 billion. If the current trend continues, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. This is only the case for packaging plastic. In the case of commercial and residential used carpets, 1.6 million tonnes goes to waste every year In Europe, according to an estimation by consultancy firm Eunomia. Upcycling plastic and using other substitutes will not suffice to create a positive impact.

This is where the joint venture between Paris-based flooring company Tarkett, and Italy-based Nylon engineering group Aquafil comes in.

This is an era of strategy. The world has shifted from object design to design strategy. The background mechanism is more critical than how the product looks, not only to the retail customers but also the architects and designers who execute various interior projects. Cooperate social responsibility creates a major contribution to business growth rather than being a mere marketing strategy, with the aid of engineering and design. Such a paradigm shift implies that the companies are at the edge of leaving the safety net and the current system is in need of disruption. Circularity equipped with well-designed logistics is the key.

Tarkett had employed the ReStart® programme in 2010 to collect post-installation and post-consumer flooring for recycling and reuse. The major challenge that they’re facing is purity. Separation of yarn and backing facilitates the two components being recycled more efficiently to ensure purity, which is key for the quality of recycled nylon. Tarkett can fulfil the separation task on its own, since the launch of the EcoBase-backed carpet tile in 2010, composed of recyclable EcoBase backing, and polyamide 6 (PA6) yarn supplied by Aquafil. Still, the purifying process is more complicated for nylon yarn collected from post-consumer carpet tiles. Using breakthrough technology at its Waalwijk-based facility, Tarkett can isolate the lint, achieving 95% purity. With the aid of Aquafil, the new technical cycle allows Tarkett to send the lint to Aquafil to produce ECONYL®, a nylon regenerated from non-virgin material with infinite regeneration potential, then send the product back to Tarkett. The cycle between the two companies reshapes their linear supplier relationship into a mutual circular one, while closing the loop of the technical regeneration cycle of polyamide 6 and EcoBase carpet tiles.

Describing the processing of the by-product during the purification process, Aquafil CEO Giulio Bonazzi explains, “Only a few types of plastic can go a step back along the chemical chain. And nylon is one of molecules capable of this. Through the process of depolymerization, nylon 6 in the gas state will go to the top of the reactor, and the non-nylon waste including colour pigment will go to the base. It is a solvent-free system, only using steam and energy. To give value to the secondary non-nylon material, it will be converted to energy at special facilities, or will be sent to the cement industry.”

The circularity model boosts consumers’ confidence in the use of polyamide 6 carpet tiles. But will it be a disguised form of encouragement? And why not simply develop a solution based on natural materials?

Addressing the problem of how closing the loop can tackle the post-consumer carpet tiles, Tarkett CEO Fabrice Barthélemy says, “In Europe, 60% of used carpets go to landfill, 30% get incinerated and only 3% get into the loop of recycling. That means that there is a huge potential to create the circularity.”

Commenting on the importance of looking beyond the green labels with a critical concern for the background science of new materials, Aquafil CEO Giulio Bonazzi states, “I am not saying nylon is the perfect material, but rather the application drives the choice of the fibre that you have to use.  Sometimes natural fibres can be more polluting than synthetic ones; it depends on what you want to focus on environmentally. For example, the recyclability of natural fibres is quite limited. Let’s not forget that for producing carpet tiles, we need very good mechanical performance. Last but not least, scalability. There are many new sustainable materials. But if we want to have a circular system, we need to work with less material. Sorting and collection are the challenges. Before introducing new materials, we have to further explore how to recycle existing plastic and fibres.

By Dawn Hung

Yarn rolls Waalwijk