Green Solutions: A Second Chance For Carpet


By Anne Cosgrove
Published in the September 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

With a proactive approach to finding carpet recycling and reuse options, Steve Spencer, facilities specialist for State Farm Insurance, has been instrumental in keeping more than 300,000 square yards of carpet out of landfills. Meanwhile, maintenance and design considerations also play into Spencer’s sustainable carpet strategy.

What is your position at your organization?

I am a facilities specialist for all State Farm facilities in the United States and Canada, which consists of between 2,500 to 2,800 facilities at any given time.

I am in the interior design unit, which is part of the facilities management department. I am located in our corporate headquarters in Bloomington, IL and have been in this position for 11 years.

When and how did you become interested in environmental issues?

My first exposure to environmental issues was in the 1950s when I was a small child. I remember vividly the “Don’t Be a Litterbug” campaign.

More recently, in the mid-1980s, my oldest daughter was starting school, and she became an extreme advocate for the environment. She was the one who motivated our family to start recycling plastic, aluminum, and other items before our city was even involved.

Is there a sustainable project or vision (aside from your own) that has impressed you most?

The thing that’s impressed me most recently is INVISTA’s carpet reclamation program and its total environmental impact. From the beginnings of its manufacturing process all the way through, INVISTA [manufacturer of Antron® carpet fiber] has tried to address everything that would impact the environment.

What best describes the green philosophy your company would like to convey?

We want to do what’s right and what makes sense.

State Farm started recycling paper in 1973 because of all the paper the company used. This made sense, because recyclers were paying for paper back then. The white paper was at a premium, because it could be made into low grade white paper. We actually made money on the process.

Today, about 65% of the company’s total waste stream is recycled. We collect aluminum, plastic, glass, paper, cardboard, and phone books.

When did the carpet recycling program begin, and why was the decision made to pursue this goal?

About three years ago, I read an article about carpet mills and others in the industry forming a coalition to reduce the amount of carpet going into landfills. The article stated that billions of pounds of carpet were going into landfills each year.

With all the facilities State Farm operates—more than 30,000,000 square feet and most of it carpeted—I figured we needed to take some initiative.

What was the reaction of upper management to the decision to embrace the principles of sustainable design in this project?

It has been nothing but positive.

The initial presentation I brought to management consisted of a rebate program I had discussed with several of our vendors. I told management that with this program, we could spend the same or less as we would for landfilling. For instance, a vendor says, “You’re going to buy our carpet. You’ve got old carpet that we could use for recycling. We’ll give you a 20¢ per yard rebate on every yard we pull out of your facility for recycling on the future purchases.”

We had also done a carpet recycling project six years earlier, when we put new carpet into our corporate headquarters [north]. We contracted with the manufacturer to recycle the old product. We paid about 80¢ per square yard, but we felt it was such a big project that we needed to do something.

What was the vendor selection like?

There are a number of [Antron] mill partners who are also doing recycling such as Tandus, Collins & Aikman, and Interface.

Which materials vendors will accept does vary. For instance, one company might recycle carpet tiles to make new tiles but will want their own product. Another will accept any manufacturer’s carpet backing as long as it is a hard back but might not necessarily want the fiber.

I did some research to find out what our options were. We identified five methodologies we could use for carpet disposal. These were: total recycling (carpet to carpet); downcycling (taking the product and using it to produce items like automobile parts, park benches, or carpet backing); reuse (There’s a consortium of not-for-profit organizations that will take used carpet, clean it, and then put it in their facilities.); burning the carpet for energy through a verifiable agency; and landfilling, which was not an option.

So, when we start a carpet project, we look at all those options. For instance, the State Farm corporate south headquarters facility in Bloomington is now in the middle of a two-year recarpeting project. It’s about 120,000 square yards of carpeting and all of that product is being recycled. It’s going through our installer who takes it back to the warehouse. Some carpet is going to INVISTA, some of it is going to Collins & Aikman, and some of it is going for reuse. That’s 120,000 square yards that won’t hit the landfill.

What have been some of the non-economic sustainable challenges and highlights of this project?

We also have a lot of smaller offices, and it is a challenge to find recycling options for projects of that size. For instance, in a 15,000 square foot facility, there will be about 1,500 square yards of carpet. A full truckload is about 4,800 square yards of carpet. So there is a challenge in getting that shipped to the recycling site. Initially, we only looked at the large projects for recycling (3,000 square yards and up).

Another issue is the mix of carpet types. A lot of our buildings contain more than one type of carpet. There may be broadloom, tile, or cushion backed tile. So, we recognize that we may have to use a variety of different recycling and reuse destinations.

The highlights have been finding solutions to keep carpet out of the landfill. For example, we have an office in Arizona where we replaced 3,000 to 4,000 square yards of carpet and we wanted to recycle it. Unfortunately, that got missed on our bid package, so we needed to figure out what to do with it after the fact.

I asked the installers to find out how much it would cost to landfill the carpet in their area. They called a waste hauler and the price was very inexpensive at $800. But we didn’t want to landfill. Then, they checked with INVISTA and found out it would cost $6,000 to recycle it.

The carpet manufacturer whose product we had just purchased has a recycling program, so I called and asked if the manufacturer would be interested in the old carpet. It turns out the company made the backing on it and wanted it. We had to put it on pallets and shrink wrap it, but the company took it away for free.

That’s where the ingenuity, time, and effort come in. We took something that could have gone to a landfill or cost us $6,000, and it ended up costing us absolutely nothing.

There is still not a program set up that is an answer to every situation. It would be ideal if INVISTA could take our product and we could pay the same or less for recycling as we would for landfilling. That actually is the case for us in the northeast. It costs a lot of money to landfill in that region—about $5.00 per square yard. It’s less expensive to take it to INVISTA and pay $2.00 per square yard.

Discovering these costs has been another challenge, because we have found most installers or general contractors don’t include a line item in their bids indicating what the landfill costs are or what they’re going to do with the carpeting. We have to make sure that line item is in every price we solicit from those vendors.

What is the ROI on these projects?

If we can do it for less than or the same as landfilling, then that’s our return. But in some cases, we’ve actually made money. As I mentioned earlier, some mills offer us rebates on new products we buy from them if they take the old carpet for recycling purposes.

How often do you replace the carpeting in your facilities?

When I came to State Farm 11 years ago, we were getting an average of six years of life out of our carpeting; now we’re getting 12 years.

Our maintenance programs and the design of the carpet are playing a part in this. We’re utilizing walk off tile in the entries to our building, for instance, so the carpet in the rest of the building doesn’t take that punishment of outside soils. It’s all part of the sustainability process.

How many square yards of carpet have you diverted from a landfill?

We diverted 120,000 square yards of carpet from the project six years ago. And the whole 120,000 square yards from the current headquarters project is going to be diverted. We also diverted carpet from two other offices, which were about 35,000 square yards each. In the Arizona project, there were about 4,000 square yards diverted.

Have you applied for LEED certification for this project?

No, we appreciate and acknowledge LEED and the U.S. Green Building Council, but certification—at least with LEED right now—is a prestigious thing. Prestige usually carries along with it a dollar sign or at least it does in some people’s minds. When you’ve got a company that’s owned by policyholders—like ours is—you don’t want that image.

I did sit down with an architect for a building we built a couple of years ago and we went through and applied the LEED standards to it as strictly as we could.

What have you learned from this project?

I’ve learned that if you really want to make a difference and you’re willing to do the research and be creative and flexible, it can be done. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to go down many side streets to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.

Knowing your costs are very important and this holds true for the environmental decisions. Some people I’ve talked to don’t know how much it costs them to landfill carpet. For some in the northeast, they could be paying as much $5.00 per square yard to landfill, while for $2.00 per square yard, they could recycle.

What has been the most professionally rewarding aspect of this project?

If you’re able to do the right thing, then everybody wins. And that’s the satisfaction that we get out of it.

Questions about this project can be sent to Steve Spencer at