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by Sarah Fister Gale

You can find the concepts of reuse, recycle and natural resource conservation written in the early records of Milliken and Co. dating back to the year 1900.

The carpet and chemical manufacturer, founded in 1865, has long subscribed to the belief that waste and pollution cost money. The South Carolina-based company incorporates this belief into its design process and also has a standard protocol that focuses specifically on the end-of-life – when a product is no longer useful and is ready for disposal.

Contributor Sarah Fister Gale recently discussed end-of-life product design with Bill Gregory, Milliken's sustainability director who has worked for the company for more than 35 years. In this GreenBiz Radio podcast, Bill discusses how the carpet industry is joining together to improve carpet recycling and the ways in which end-of-life thinking has led to new Milliken products.

Sarah Fister Gale: So let's talk about end-of-life.  A lot of companies are not just thinking about the environmental impact of their products as they're produced or used, but also what happens to them once their end of life is reached.  How does Milliken factor end-of-life into your product design and project management?

Bill Gregory: Well, Milliken believes that end-of-life management is a very critical part of the total lifecycle assessment of a product or a process.  And we have guidelines in the company, where we utilize design for the environment protocols, which is truly a design process with the end of the product in mind. That is a standard protocol throughout our company, and has been for the last few years.  

SFG: Can you tell me a little about it?

BG: Well, in that protocol, we understand, first of all: What are the impacts of the materials and the processes we use, as we make the product today?  But also, what can we do with those resources, when the customer says, "We want to replace them?"  We look at (if) the material be recycled.  What's the difficulty in recycling – breaking the material down into the components that can be re-utilized and all the other aspects that go into that.  

SFG: O.K.  Can you give me some examples of products that have been designed with specific end-of-life goals in mind?

BG: Sure.  One in the floor covering division of our company is a new backing system that we had a very soft preview of at NeoCon, called our B2 Backing. B2 stands for Back-to-Back.  In that process, we have been very careful to choose the materials that, first of all, perform because to be sustainable, the product has to perform and be durable.  But also to insure that the components are very compatible with each other in today's life, and also in the future, when we would separate those materials or use them as a composite to make a new product from.  

So we've totally looked at what's going to happen at the end of the product's life with all the materials?  Is there a process that's available today, not that we hope will be available in 10 or 15 years?  And what could we make out of that material when the old floor covering came back?  

SFG: What can you make out of this material?

BG: Well, we actually can make more carpet backing out of it.  That's why we're calling it Back-to-Back.

But there are other things that could be made out of it.  And one of the advantages we have in Milliken & Co. is we make 39,000 different products.  We're not just a floor covering manufacturer.  We're a multifaceted textile, carpet, and chemical company.  

And through the synergy of all those products, we may bring back something that's an old automotive product, and be able to take those materials and put them into another new product that we make in the company.  

The same thing with floor covering.  We may bring that back and make a new automotive part or product out of it.  But we want to make sure that we utilize those returned resources to their highest value that we can.  

And there is not a singular path or a singular model that fits everything.  We try to engineer each one separately into the most valuable reuse of those components.

SFG: What about collection of these products?  It's great to have something in mind for end of use, but if your customers throw them into a landfill, what's the point?  Right?

BG: Well, that's very true.

SFG: How do you get them back?

BG: That is the big complication right now.  We are members of CARE, the Carpet America Recovery Effort.

I actually sit on the board of that.  And of course, we're working on that challenge as an industry, not as an individual company. I do think that's the right way to approach it because it does not make sense for each manufacturer to have a collection point in each city or multiple ones in the larger cities.  But how can we have a floor covering collection system in place?  

And we've got a great beginning of that type of system.  In some locations where floor covering is actually mandated out of the landfill, it's given us a big benefit.  

We've got to continue to build that network.  We've got to continue to communicate and educate the consumer that there is value there, and don't let it be taken to the landfill.  Milliken, along with, I think, most of the other leading manufacturers in the floor covering industry have a promise to our customers that if you replace your carpet with old Milliken carpet, we will make sure that none of the old carpet goes to the landfill and we will reuse, recycle, re-purpose that to the highest value that we can.  

SFG: Let's talk a little bit about this.  The floor covering industry has been leading edge in thinking about end-of-life for its products, and working across the industry obviously makes sense, as you've pointed out.  

But there are so many competitive issues, I would guess, in working with your competition.  And I would assume that in other industries, that could be a barrier to creating groups like CARE.  How do you get beyond competition, to work with your industry members?

BG: Well, let me take a contrarian position. I don't believe that sustainability, end-of-life collection and reuse should be a marketing platform.  I think it needs to be done because it's the right thing to do, and as an industry, we need to cooperate on what we do at end-of-life.  

Now, I certainly support that we all are independently going to work to make our product more sustainable on the front end, but when it gets to end-of-life, it is nonsensical for us to all have independent groups, independent organizations that do the same thing.  

I support having a centralized floor covering group that would bring all the old material in, separate it into the components, and then Milliken or the other manufacturers would specify to that organization the components that we want to bring back and make new product out of.  Cost-wise and synergistically, that would be the best answer.  

SFG: And would that, then, be its own separate industry – this floor covering recovery process?

BG: It would be.  Yes.  We would support the entrepreneurs that help us put that together.  Frankly, that's part of the CARE mission is how do we get the entrepreneurs, how do we get the industry working together to create a solution for all those different floor coverings that are out there today?  

And there's a big change in how floor coverings are made today, versus 10 or 20 years ago, because of more increased focus on end of life.  You know even five years ago, many manufacturers didn't worry about what you could do with it downstream.  Today, I think (for) most of the leading manufacturers, that's one of the top criteria in their evaluation process.  

SFG: If it's that recent, in changing how you think about downstream or end-of-life, how has that changed your product development process?  Where does end-of-life come into your thinking?  

BG: Well, it comes in right at the beginning of our thinking.  As I said, we've got to develop with the end in mind today.  We've got to choose the right materials that, number one, are not impactful on human health, upfront, that do the right thing from a performance standpoint.  And then we've got to have a filter that says, at the end of the life, we can separate those materials out and reuse them into new products.  

SFG: Tell me about some of the most innovative choices that Milliken has made to change products, with end-of-life in mind.

BG: Well, actually, in 1992, we introduced to the market a process called Earth Square.  Earth Square is a process where we can take old carpet tile and we can renew that tile.  We bring it back.  We super-clean it.  We re-texture the face.  And then we can either put new design on it, or send it back with the old design, with a brand new guarantee.  It looks like new carpet.  It performs like new carpet.  

And that program's been in the market now for what – 16 years.  So we've been thinking about this for quite a while.  We've actually done hundreds of thousands of yards through that process.  

SFG: What kinds of impacts have these sustainability decisions had on Milliken's environmental impact, because I know that you've got a lot of environmental measures in place.  Tell me a little about those.

BG: Well, sustainability has helped us quantify a lot of what we'd already been doing as part of our core philosophy.  But it's also helped us be able to communicate easier with our customer base in those arenas that today are areas of concern.  What is the environmental impact?  What about the social responsibility?  What about the economics?  

And the economics, I think, are very misunderstood as far as "green products" are considered.  We know, as manufacturers, that we have to make a product that performs, that meets the budgets, that gives the choices, and it has to be sustainable.  At Milliken, we believe that if being green is important, that we should do it for everything that we make, not just for one product line that we set aside so we can say that we have a green product line.

So when we offer sustainable products, we offer them on everything that we do in the marketplace, not just a very small amount.  

SFG: Let's talk a little bit about the environmental measures that you have in place and what results you've seen; for example, your percent of total solid waste that doesn't go to a landfill.

BG: Well, Milliken has had environmental initiatives in place that we measure and publish those metrics, since the mid-50s

Some of the leading things are the one that you mentioned: waste to landfill.  We've sent zero waste to the landfill since 1999. We've reduced our energy and water consumption by around 50 percent since 1995.  And I say around 50 percent – I think water is 49 percent, and energy's 51 percent.

We have reduced our carbon footprint by 22 percent in the last four years, and we are certified as a carbon negative company and as all of our products being carbon neutral.  And that's accomplished through Milliken's professionally managed, certified forest lands, the use of alternative energy, and the use of small hydroelectric plants to generate electricity that we own.  So those are all through internal accomplishments, not by buying offsets from some outside concern.

We created our own offsets and we're very proud of the zero carbon footprint that we offer to our customers.  And we're continuing, by the way, to work on reducing our emissions.  The 22 percent is just the beginning.  We know we need to continue to work on that, and that is one of our top goals in our environmental engineering arena.  

SFG: Before I let you go, what advice do you have for members of other industries about achieving some of the goals that you've achieved, specifically thinking about end-of-life?

BG: Well, a key thing that we've learned over the years is if you don't put an aggressive goal out there, you will never do the best you can do.  When Mr. Milliken challenged us in the early '90s to get zero waste to the landfill, in many ways, we thought that was impossible.  But with that aggressive goal, with us focused on it, it was attainable.  

I think that's very true in end-of-life recovery.  If you understand that there is a very aggressive goal, you understand the steps that you have to go through then, and then you continually monitor.  You put in place processes to ensure your compliance.  Most of these environmental goals are very attainable.  And I think 10, 20 years in the future shouldn't be the goal.  The goal should be: How do we get there in the next five to seven years?

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Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Mar-3-2009)   
When I worked in the patent development business, the thing that I read once struck me the hardest: "The biggest competitor to any product is itself." In other words, what if the thing you are making or promoting wasn't there?
It is amazing how many things can be recycled into carpeting that we don't need in the first place. Kinda puts a different light on this whole company, doesn't it?

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