Path to Positive: Shaw Optimizes From Manufacturing to Reuse
What if used carpet never had to be sent to the landfill? Instead, what if it could remain within a continuous cycle of use and reuse? What if it was made with safe, healthy ingredient materials — and assembled so that, at the end of its useful life, it could be reclaimed and reused in the manufacture of new carpet? What if this cycle took place over and over again?
These were some of the questions Shaw Industries’ innovation and design teams sought to answer when they set out in the late 1990s to create a more environmentally responsible alternative to traditional PVC-backed carpet tile.
The result was EcoWorx®, what would become the world’s first Cradle to Cradle Certified™ recyclable carpet tile.
A HEALTHY CIRCULAR ECONOMY
The development of EcoWorx is a pinnacle example of the entwined nature of sustainability optimization. Designing for reuse — to create a carpet tile that could be infinitely recycled with no loss of quality — meant removing PVC, phthalates, and other potentially harmful chemicals. The desire to cycle safe ingredients during product manufacture ensures its seamless flow back into the raw material stream for reuse into new carpet tiles. “We don’t have to worry about legacy chemicals. It’s a very clean process,” notes Tim Conway, Shaw’s vice president of global accounts.
Over more than two years, Shaw conducted R&D to determine how to forgo those traditional backing ingredients without sacrificing product performance. This leadership set the tone for the company’s future innovations while creating a ripple effect that would reverberate through the rest of the industry in the years that followed.
Just as essential was developing a takeback program — the industry’s first — that would ensure the connection of the circular economy Shaw had set in motion with EcoWorx. Today, the program reclaims millions of pounds annually, in part by overcoming some of the most difficult challenges. Most notably, the company recovers the carpet at no cost to the end user, and each tile is labeled with a toll-free number on the back to facilitate the process.
And even more telling: with 16 years and more than 3 billion square feet of EcoWorx installed, there is an increasing stream of recycled material coming back into the manufacturing process as buildings are renovated, reducing the reliance on raw material feedstock overall.
Beyond its sustainability, EcoWorx has bolstered Shaw’s success: The company found that EcoWorx actually performed better than comparable products that used chemicals banned under Cradle to Cradle. It’s also lighter in weight, reducing transportation costs. Those advantages were key to the product’s market success as much as any label, with the product finding customer preference over the company’s PVC counterpart. Now the fastest growing product in the commercial market, EcoWorx has been installed in several hundred thousand projects across 80 countries.
Following the introduction of EcoWorx, Shaw spent three years phasing out carpet tile products that contained PVC and phthalates, completing the process in 2003. Beginning with the end in mind during the product development ensures that optimization is a key driver from the early stages so there is no need to work backward.
These early efforts to work with safe ingredients that can be perpetually cycled are in perfect alignment with the Cradle to Cradle methodology, and the manufacturer was one of the first to get involved as the product standard was being developed in the early-2000s. “The mission of the company is to create a better future,” says Paul Murray, vice president of sustainability at Shaw. “We were already doing a lot of things with waste efficiency, energy, recycling, and social responsibility. Cradle to Cradle came along, and it was a natural fit with what we were trying to accomplish with products that have a lower footprint. It was a great model for us to follow.”
Today, more than 65% of the company’s sales of internally manufactured products are C2C certified, which includes 92% of commercial carpet products, 60% of residential carpets, and 100% of Shaw’s hardwood flooring products.
The company’s strive for optimization continues to strengthen across all five of Cradle to Cradle’s categories — material health, material reutilization, social fairness, water stewardship, and renewable energy/carbon management. Recent achievements beyond material health and material reutilization include the social impact of implementing an average of almost 50 hours of training per associate, for a total of more than 1 million training hours for employees. In 2015 employees contributed more than 67,000 hours of volunteer time and donated more than $4.7 million to organizations that impact people’s lives in the communities where the company operates. Shaw also implemented new calculation methods and a baseline year for energy, emissions, and water intensity metrics that raise the bar for its performance to align with industry standard reporting the company has been using as part of the Department of Energy’s Better Plants Program. Solar arrays at its manufacturing facility in Cartersville, Ga., generated 1.3 million kilowatt hours in 2015.
Recently, the company tackled NPE, a surfactant used in carpet binders that was identified as a banned chemical in Cradle to Cradle version 3, released in 2015. Shaw worked with its supplier to remove the chemical from its latex. And because that latex is used by a number of manufacturers, the healthier chemistry is now present in many flooring products, even from those companies not currently participating in Cradle to Cradle.
This broader industry impact can be seen in installation adhesives, as well. Shaw worked with its supplier to develop Shaw 5000, a water-based product that was the first liquid adhesive to be Cradle to Cradle Certified. The adhesive vendor supplies across the industry, so those same benefits are present in a range of certified and non-certified products. The same occurred with the company’s innovative Cradle to Cradle Certified dry adhesive, consisting of a glue dot applied to the back of the carpet during installation that contains no VOCs and can be used in high moisture installations — a solution to an industrywide problem.
Such influence is expanding to cleaning companies, as Shaw works with those providers to develop safe carpet cleaning solutions. With this achievement, the company will have fulfilled a soup-to-nuts approach with manufacture, installation, care/reuse, and recycling meeting Cradle to Cradle principles.
It’s all fitting for a company that considers it a mission to optimize the whole industry, an effort that shows in its continual outreach to educate end users, to partner with practitioners seeking change, and to recruit and encourage peers to get involved.
“We’ve continued to improve,” says David Wilkerson, corporate director of sustainability. “But where most optimization has occurred is not within the walls of Shaw but the walls of our industry. Collaboration with clients has the power to optimize an industry.”
“Cradle to Cradle has changed the flooring category,” adds Conway. “In collaboration with clients, we are optimizing the industry. Now the market, the A&D community, and like-minded end-users are seeing the value of Cradle to Cradle. We’re empowering clients to put healthier products in buildings and bringing awareness to takeback and upcycling.”
And not only is it growing in popularity, but it’s starting to mature. “It used to be about recycled content. Now the industry and the knowledge are focused around material health, driven by the architecture and design community and by end users,” adds Murray. “The conversations are getting more sophisticated. Cradle to Cradle is making the conversation easier to understand.” As a case in point, Murray notes the recent inclusion of Cradle to Cradle as a leading standard under LEED v4.
Shaw will continue to expand its own efforts over the next decade and a half, with 2030 sustainability goals including reducing water intensity (per pound of finished product) by 50%, decreasing energy intensity and GHG emissions by 40%, reducing waste to landfills and hazardous waste by 100%, and, naturally, designing 100% of Shaw products to Cradle to Cradle.
“The market can find carpet tile from anyone,” says Murray. “We’re not just trying to provide a product. We’re trying to provide a product and a purpose. Cradle to Cradle empowers our team to provide a product and a purpose to our clients.”