When Aquafil began manufacturing carpet fiber almost 50 years ago, sustainability wasn’t an option but a must.  Doing business in the Lake Garda region of Italy, where environmental protection has always been top priority, meant constantly innovating to keep up with strict mandates on noise, water, and air pollution. “Preserving the environment is in our DNA,” says Giulio Bonazzi, President and CEO of what is now the second largest worldwide supplier of Nylon 6 yarn for carpet producers like Interface and Desso. A timeline of unprecedented milestones, including the recovery and reuse of all their own internal production waste, has led to their most important environmental undertaking to date: the Econyl Recycling Project.

The Econyl Recycling Project (or Econyl for short) is a multi-faceted initiative involving hundreds of companies, a few national governments, teams of specialists, millions of dollars invested, and a whole lot of waste rescued from landfills and oceans.

To fully appreciate the significance of this endeavor, it first helps to know a little bit about the science behind modern carpet manufacturing.  A recent tour of Aquafil’s North American headquarters and manufacturing facility (an hour drive north of Atlanta in Cartersville, GA) with VP of Operations Robert Rebello was my personal introduction to Carpet Chemistry 101.

(Left) Liquid nylon mixed with black pigment solidifies immediately upon entering the cold waterbath; (Right) Plastic strands of nylon leave texturizing machine as textile yarn suitable for carpet fiber production.

As we walked amongst the rows of funnels, water baths, and spinnerets, Robert explained how petroleum-based caprolactam undergoes a chemical reaction with heat and pressure, a process known as polymerization. The resulting material is Nylon 6, a synthetic fiber used for a plethora of everyday products: toothbrush bristles, thread, fishing nets, guitar strings, surgical sutures, pantyhose, and of course, carpet fibers. I watched in amazement as Nylon 6 went into a texturizing machine as plastic strands only to re-emerge as the soft, silky yet super-resilient yarn coveted by Aquafil’s carpet designer clients.

The remarkable thing about Nylon 6 is how easily (chemically speaking) it can be brought back to its original building block, caprolactam. With the latest in technology, this reprocessed caprolactam can be polymerized once again into usable Nylon 6 without any degradation of its qualitative properties.

Anything made of the Nylon 6 polymer can feed this continuous loop of regeneration: old carpeting once destined for the landfill, abandoned fishing nets polluting the sea and endangering marine life, as well as a variety of other plastic products at the end of their useful life cycle.

Theoretically, not another drop of oil need go toward the creation of carpet — and that’s a goal Giulio Bonazzi and his partners in the Econyl Recycling Project are striving for.  Says Mr. Bonazzi, “My dream in the near future is to produce 100% of my products out of 100% post-consumer recycled material.  This is the direction we are heading!”

(Left) Robert Rebello explains how unavoidable manufacturing waste gets cycled back into production; (Right) Roy Hickman from Marketing and Product Development exhibiting samples of old carpet "fluff" to be re-used in manufacturing Nylon 6.

As of 2011, Aquafil’s premium branded carpet fibers (the Alto Chroma) start as 25% post-consumer caprolactam, blended with a remainder of post-industrial waste in their new state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Slovenia.  They are on target to bring the post-consumer content up to 50% by 2013, thanks to the ever-growing partnerships they’ve established with consortia, organizations and firms to supply them with recyclables.

Along with many of their other textile flooring customers, Interface provides Aquafil with carpet fluff (the facing) through their own take-back programs.  In fact, Interface founder Ray Anderson was a major inspiration for Mr. Bonazzi.  As he explains:

My first meeting with Ray was at Interface’s 25th anniversary party.  There, he mentioned their 2000 sustainability strategy and I realized we had like minds. I began to watch Interface closely, saw the excitement and motivation their employees had about the work they were doing under Ray’s leadership.  This inspired me as Aquafil began our Econyl journey.  During our last Christmas celebration, I received so many Thank You’s and Congratulations from my own employees — they all wanted to express their happiness to be working for a company that lets them do something positive for the environment.  This made me so proud!

[+] More about Econyl and other Aquafil environmental initiatives.

Photo credits: Theresa M. Grant.