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Shaw’s new carpet materials make for closed loop recycling

Shaw Industries became the nation’s leading-edge flooring manufacturer using a simple notion. Sensing a shift in consumer preference to more environmentally friendly products, Shaw began looking at alternatives to standard materials and processes used to manufacture carpet.  As a result of this search for better alternatives, Shaw Industries introduced the world’s first Cradle to CradleTM certified flooring product in the late 1990s.

Traditionally, all American carpet makers produced millions of tons of carpet containing petroleum-based adhesives (in Shaw’s case, polyvinyl chloride, or PVCs). This way of thinking not only required handling hazardous ingredients and mandating safety measures to control worker and environmental exposures, but resulted in huge amounts of chemically-laden waste to end up in landfills once the carpet was of no use. (Despite recycling efforts, approximately 400 million pounds of used carpet are still dumped in California landfills annually, according to the Carpet America Recovery Effort).

But in 1999, Shaw’s research teams, having worked well ahead of the industry, introduced a new recyclable carpet tile. The new product line stemmed from Shaw’s joint work with Dow Chemical Company to create a safer alternative to standard PVC backing. Increasing the use of the alternatives assessment process, like the one used by Shaw, is a key goal of DTSC’s Safer Consumer Product Regulations, which aims to reduce hazardous ingredients in products.

In Shaw’s case, the timing couldn’t have been better for the company’s bottom line. The company’s new product coincided perfectly with the commercial real estate cycle. Increasingly, the commercial sector’s biggest carpet consumers - expanding government agencies and office developers – were demanding such environmentally-friendly flooring to win competitive green building certifications.

“Shaw was recognized in its industry as an innovator,” said a carpet industry case study by the Investor Environmental Health Net work.

As clients selected the safer alternative, Shaw, a Georgia-based company and subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, eliminated PVC entirely from its carpet tiles by 2004, several years ahead of schedule. The company has, and continues, to replace chemicals of concern in most of its dyes, colorants and adhesives, and found substitutes for formaldehyde in some of its wood products.

Selected sample (large)In 2003, Shaw’s new EcoWorx™ brand won national recognition for designing with greener chemicals. It received a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Today, Shaw’s carpet redesign offers a classic look at how companies can prosper by finding safer ingredients for consumer products. Shaw’s alternatives analysis process weighed benefits and drawbacks of various alternatives for quality, reliability, durability, safety and cost. The flooring company thought through challenges of its various alternatives, and eventually settled on new safer ingredients for the company’s supply chains to deliver.

“This type of assessment is important before large investments are made in manufacturing assets, and before chemical and product ingredient choices are made.  We also view alternative assessments as a natural outcome of our quest to continually improve our product’s performance from a health perspective. Sustainability is a set of actions that lead us to a better place economically, environmentally and socially,” said Dennis McGavis, Shaw’s director of Product Stewardship and Regulatory Affairs.