InterfaceFLOR's climb to conquer Mount Sustainability

Global carpet tile manufacturer InterfaceFLOR is on a mission to eliminate its entire environmental impact by 2020. Ramon Arratia talks to Maxine Perella about its journey so far

Ramon Arratia at InterfaceFLOR's London showroom

Ramon Arratia at InterfaceFLOR's London showroom

Take a team of your top designers, camp them out in a forest for two days and get them to study patterns of leaf fall. It's called biomimicry - learning from nature. What they come up with can be revolutionary. InterfaceFLOR did just that and its 'Random Design' concept was born, a random-designed modular idea for its carpet tiles whereby each tile is similar, but not exactly the same - like leaves on the forest floor, or pebbles on a river bed.

As each tile is unique in terms of its patterning and colouration, InterfaceFLOR found this allows for a non-directional installation which is quicker and easier to install than other floor coverings. This random patterning means off-cuts can be reused, resulting in less waste. Pretty impressive, but then everything the company does with its waste is nothing short of inspirational.

InterfaceFLOR is one of the world's leading carpet tile manufacturers - it has manufacturing sites in Yorkshire, Northern Ireland and Holland. It is the modular flooring division of US-based Interface, founded by Ray Anderson who was one of the original zero waste pioneers. Anderson embarked on 'Mission Zero' 17 years ago - to eliminate the company's impact on the environment by 2020. To date, Interface is over halfway towards reaching that goal.

Sadly, Anderson died last August after a long-running battle with cancer. He was aged 77, and right up to his death, was still playing an active role in the company. His passion to climb 'Mount Sustainability' as he called it infected almost everyone he met in the business world, not to mention his staff. According to Ramon Arratia, InterfaceFLOR's european sustainability director, "Ray was the guy who ignited the flame in this company".

Evidence of that is clear to see. Speaking to Arratia at the company's London showroom, I got the sense that zero waste is not the end point for him but rather, the beginning. "We are very close to zero waste to landfill now in the UK, but in Holland we have been zero waste for years because the country is so reliant on incineration - there is no landfill. So really, what is zero waste? The aim for us is to recycle as much of our waste as possible back into our own processes."

A prime example of this is the company's ReEntry system - a customer takeback scheme, where tiles are either reused or recycled. Building on this, InterfaceFLOR has developed ReEntry 2.0 - a pioneering reprocessing line that further closes the loop. This line separates out the nylon yarn and the backing of the tile in such a way so that both materials retain their purity so they can be put back into the production process.

"This is a pilot line at the moment out in our Holland factory, but we are looking to roll it out into other countries - Germany, France and the UK - within the next 18 months," says Arratia. He adds that it is the responsibility of companies like his to not just deal with their own internal waste, but the waste of any end-of-life products from customers as well. "The challenge is to come up with a process that can deal with both."

InterfaceFLOR is working hard to tweak its production processes to minimise waste arisings. "When you make carpet, a lot of waste is generated. When you tuft it, some yarn is left on the cones so we use a winding/rewinding process to recover that. When you cut tiles, you get 'window' waste - we've been reusing our window waste for years, but since 2008 we have applied an ultrasonic cutting technology, where the knives vibrate at ultrasonic speed - they are so accurate that it eliminates these windows," explains Arratia.

Employing these practices has helped reduce manufacturing waste to landfill by 80% since 1996, resulting in $433m cost savings. The company is now turning its attention to product lifecycle. The latest innovation - the Biosfera range - is its most sustainable carpet tile yet. This is made of 100% recycled yarn, a feat previously thought impossible due to the materialistic qualities of oil-based yarn.

By working with one of its main suppliers, Aquafil, the material features reclaimed commercial fishing nets and end-of-life product from the ReEntry 2.0 system. As a result, it uses 50% less yarn compared to a typical tile, cutting carbon footprint impact by half. "We intend to roll this material out to all of our products by 2020," says Arratia. "Today 40% of our raw materials are recycled - by 2020 this will be 100%."

Arratia says the company is now on the hunt to "scavenge radical materials" from outside of its own supply chain to extract value from it. While he won't say what these materials might be, he believes that the ultimate sustainable process is "when you use bad stuff as a feedstock". Central to this is encouraging suppliers to think outside of the box and innovate. "We tell them where we want to be by 2020 and it's up to them to be proactive and come up with the solutions we want. It's a long-term vision, but ultimately it creates business opportunities."

He maintains that in order to be truly sustainable, waste producers now need to take big risks. "It's a Catch 22 - if your consumers don't pay for more sustainability, and your investors don't reward you for it, you have to solve the problem yourself and then try to influence the system." When asked if such risks have paid off for InterfaceFLOR - Arratia smiles, before replying: "It's too early to tell, but we are seeing very positive early signs."

Maxine Perella is editor of edieWaste


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