It’s easy for the concepts of Cradle to Cradle design and a circular economy to become shorthand for recycling, but both are much more complex than that. As currency in a circular economy, Cradle to Cradle (C2C) products are sustainably manufactured, with safe ingredients, that can be perpetually recycled – all of which are critical to the approach.
The Cradle to Cradle Product Certification Program provides a comprehensive, third-party assessment that looks at material health, material reutilization, renewable energy, water stewardship and social responsibility. The task of getting started or continuing to evolve what has become a tried and true sustainability solution can be daunting. But it begins simply with: what if?
What if used carpet tile 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 designed so that, at the end of its useful life, it could be reclaimed and reused in the manufacture of new carpet tile? What if this cycle took place over and over again?
That’s what Shaw asked when we set out to create a more environmentally responsible alternative to traditional PVC-backed carpet tile. The result was EcoWorx, which would become the world’s first Cradle to Cradle Certified carpet tile. Today, more than 65 percent of the products we manufacture are Cradle to Cradle Certified – including other carpet products and engineered hardwood – as well as wet and dry carpet tile adhesives.
We continue to face the challenges that every company on a quest for greater circularity does: logistics, economics, historic business models, and more. But the roadmap to EcoWorx continues to inspire how we design with the end in mind and strive for not just less bad, but more good. It provides a case study for others pursuing similar product development.
When we created a carpet tile that could be infinitely recycled with no loss of quality, we first removed PVC, phthalates, and other chemicals. That liberated us by leaving behind concerns about the sort of legacy chemicals that plague so many product categories. We no longer had to weigh the benefits of recycled content against the potential unknown of material ingredients.
And Cradle to Cradle is indeed a journey - certification requires continuous improvement. Products are reassessed every two years, and there is an expectation of progress in areas for improvement identified in previous reviews. Like all robust standards, Cradle to Cradle criteria evolve as new information is available. The latest version of Cradle to Cradle elevated one of the chemicals in our products from “of concern” to “banned.” We worked with our supplier to remove that chemical from its latex. 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.
Supply Chain & Economics
Such collaboration with our supply chain is critical – both up and downstream.
Creating a circular economy is not only a technical challenge but requires a keen look at supply chains, value chains and business models. And more questions: What happens to a product at the end of its life? What’s its highest and best use? Is it best used as a resource for your company or for another industry? How do you get product back in a way that facilitates that business model?
For Shaw, the product was designed to become carpet tile again, so it was essential to develop a takeback program to ensure we get this valuable material back as an ingredient for our next generation of product. To encourage participation, Shaw recovers the carpet at no cost to the end user. Each tile is labeled with a toll-free number on the back to facilitate the process. The economics work because of the intrinsic value built into the product.
Today, our program reclaims millions of pounds annually – converting carpet tile back into carpet tile. And we’re looking at enhanced reverse-engineering processes and programs to bolster the return of our EcoWorx products as a critical mass of product installed over the past 16 years becomes ready for removal due to renovations.
Our manufacturing facilities take pride in minimizing waste in the production process. Where waste is created, they look for ways to turn it into a resource. Minimal water is used in manufacturing carpet tile, and throughout our operations, we have set ambitious goals for the amount of water we use per pound of product produced.
In addition to constantly seeking energy efficiency in our facilities, we installed solar arrays at our carpet tile manufacturing facility in Cartersville, Ga. where EcoWorx products are made, generating approximately 1.3 million kilowatt hours annually. And we employ safe, fair labor practices and ask the same of our suppliers.
Designing and manufacturing Cradle to Cradle Certified products isn’t easy – it requires complex, system-wide thinking. We take risks, and whether our ambitious efforts thrive or stumble, we learn from the process. With more than three billion square feet of EcoWorx installed, we’re at a point of critical mass and keen market understanding (customer preferences, economics, supply chain, et al). But constant change is required, and we must continue to ask ourselves, “What if?”