November 27th, 2020
Interface has been manufacturing in Australia for almost 50 years
All Interface flooring product is 100% carbon neutral across the entire product life-cycle
Interface’s ReEntry program keeps carpet out of landfill
Interface launched the world’s first carbon negative carpet tile in 2020
The company aims to be carbon negative by 2040
According to the Australian Circular Textiles Association, the volume of carpet waste going to landfill in NSW alone is equivalent to all clothing waste destined for landfill.
Back in 1994, carpet tile manufacturer, Interface, set out to become the ‘world’s first environmentally sustainable and restorative company’. The journey from there has seen them launch a take-back and recycling program for their product, certify all their products as carbon neutral, launch a carpet-as-a-service model and look beyond their Mission Zero targets to become regenerative through their Climate Take Back program.
We spoke to Aidan Mullan, Interface Sustainability Manager ANZ, to find out more.
A Chemical Engineer, Aidan has held positions in operations, research and development, driving and delivering innovative projects in the chemical, process and phytomedicine industries. Now, working for Interface, he tells us what drives him:
“We manufacture beautifully designed, high performance flooring but what really gets me out of bed in the morning is the fact that there's this purpose underpinning all we do. Given the challenges of the Climate Emergency I believe I have the best job at Interface as a large part of my role is ‘walking the talk’ to tackle [these challenges]. I drive sustainability programs to eliminate waste and reduce embodied carbon as part of Interface’s Climate Take Back plan to become a carbon negative company by 2040.”
Designing, installing and commissioning Australia’s first carpet recycling process, located in Sydney, has been one of Aidan’s most satisfying achievements at Interface.
Circular economy is one of the key lenses through which Interface selects materials for its products, with green chemistry and embodied carbon being the other two. Interface developed the first carpet recycling process and operates a carpet take-back program called ReEntry. This has been key to achieving their Mission Zero goal.
The key driver was CEO and Founder, Ray Anderson, whose epiphany back in 1994 spurred him to change from the “take, make, waste” business model to one that emulates nature, a cyclical model where waste becomes food. The initial focus on waste elimination resulted in significant savings (over $400 million USD in the first 15 years) and Interface developed a global reputation for being a sustainability leader with a very much enhanced market reputation as a company with purpose.
In 1994, Interface set out to eliminate their negative impact on the planet. Today they are extending beyond those original Mission Zero commitments with a Climate Take Back plan, which aims to remove carbon from the atmosphere and protect the Earth’s natural carbon sinks.
Doing no harm is fine, but not good enough. We have to be restorative to make good the damage we have done. Our Climate Take Back plan addresses this. To reverse climate change we need to see carbon as a resource not a challenge, we need to emit less, sequester more in manmade carbon sinks and support and restore natural carbon sinks. No one industry can do this alone. It will require collective will and radical collaboration to cool the planet.
Aidan explains that the journey to reduce impacts is not always a linear path:
“Ray Anderson committed to radically changing our practices, cutting our dependency on the petrochemicals, the source of the polymers and oils we needed [to make our carpets] and envisioned a future where we could take products that already exist, and literally using sunshine (renewable energy) make new products. We developed our process, which is basically taking the carpet back [for] disassembly, taking the yarn off to make new yarn, taking the backing and then converting that into new backing.”
“Here's the thing, when we commissioned the process, our environmental impact went up 10 per cent,” Aidan explains. “We were recycling, [but] we were using additional energy.”
To combat this, Interface started sourcing gas from a local landfill site and also optimised their process, making it more energy efficient. “Once we did that, we reduced the footprint by 30 per cent, getting back on the right track. I think we have to be very careful when we talk about things being recyclable. We need to question and understand the impact our actions have on the environment. Ray Anderson and his technical teams were very much on top of that.”
Initially, post-consumer carpet from Australia was sent back to be processed in the US which raised questions about the impact of transport. Aidan explains why: when you look at the whole life-cycle of the product, the transport impact was negated by the reduced reliance on virgin raw materials. “If you look at the carbon footprint for your product … you start to see that transport is about 1per cent of the footprint. The impact from our raw materials is about 80 per cent of our environmental impact.”
Aidan emphasises the importance of evidence-based decision making through the use of environmental product declarations and Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs). “We were the first company to have environmental product declarations in North America. And in 2011, we introduced environmental product declarations for all our products here in Australia. [From this] you can see exactly where your global warming potential is.”
Design was also critical to the success of Interface in reducing their impact. In 2009 Interface re-designed their carpets in Australia, changing from bitumen to polymer backing resulting in a product now designed for disassembly and recyclability. And, in 2017, Interface commissioned its carpet recycling process in Australia.
“We were determined to install our own ReEntry process to take back the carpet we sell into the domestic market — an Australian solution for an Australian problem. The first steps entailed developing a process that fit with our manufacturing operations in Australia which involved quite a bit of R&D and re-engineering of the original ReEntry processes used globally.”
Interface built on the in-house experience acquired by Interface globally from schemes it had established in the US, Europe, Thailand and China. In Sydney they rely on their multi-disciplinary team made up of engineers, chemists and product developers.
“We use this as a point of difference with competitors and are able to access new markets where people really care about their environment,” Aidan says, explaining that the recycling process was supported from the top-down. “A key shift is seeing the ReEntry operation not as peripheral activity but part of our business as usual operations going forward. It had to be integrated into the day-to-day manufacturing activities which involved internal training on the how and why.”
One of the key difficulties in their process is ensuring customers return the product at the end of life. This is particularly challenging with a product with a long lifespan of over 15 years. “The difficult thing [is] the reverse supply chain. That is key.”
Aidan shares with us an announcement that is hot off the press: Interface will be launching a ‘product as a service model’ for their carpets, called EverGreen leasing. Product-as-a-Service is a key circular economy business model where companies retain ownership of their products and lease them as a service to clients. This helps to overcome the challenge of recovering the product at the end of life, a key obstacle in its existing ReEntry recycling program.
Every product Interface offers is carbon neutral. Their Mission Zero campaign aimed to have no negative impact on the planet by 2020, which they achieved in 2019. In the lead-up to this milestone they were thinking about their next challenging commitment. “Back in 2016, we were already thinking about what we wanted to do next,” Aidan reflects.
“Doing no harm is fine, but not good enough. We have to be restorative to make good the damage we have done. Our Climate Take Back plan addresses this. To reverse climate change we need to see carbon as a resource not a challenge, we need emit less, sequester more in manmade carbon sinks and support and restore natural carbon sinks. No one industry can do this alone. It will require collective will and radical collaboration to cool the planet.”
Aidan shared one initiative with us which he sees as a great example of radical collaboration — Net-Works. Starting in the Philippines, Net-Works was an innovative, cross-segment initiative designed to tackle the growing environmental problem of discarded fishing nets in some of the world’s poorest coastal communities. Interface partnered with the Zoological Society of London and the local community to remove the discarded fishing nets, which were cleaned and sold to Aquafil for recycling into new yarn used by Interface in carpet tiles.
The project resulted in critical habitats being restored, a new source of income for the community and less virgin raw materials in the Interface supply chain. ZSL also worked with the community to develop more sustainable practice such as mangrove replanting to help replenish fish stocks and seaweed farming as an alternative industry.
The partnership has created an inclusive business model with positive outcomes for everyone involved. The program started in the Philippines and was expanded to Cameroon in 2015. At the same time, it supports Interface’s Mission Zero goal to source 100 per cent recycled material for their carpet tile and also aligns very much with the Live Zero element of their Climate Take Back initiative.
With his wealth of experience, Aidan shares this advice for other organisations: “To develop a circular economy it is important to network. You never know where the opportunity to source a recycled raw material might come from. Interface really benefited by joining [the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment's] Sustainability Advantage here in NSW. It opened a lot of doors. As in our case if you want to take back your own product to be re-used as a raw material then design it for disassembly, choose your raw materials carefully.”
Developing a circular economy is key to achieving a net zero carbon future.
Interface has, since 1996, reduced the embodied carbon footprint of its carpet tile product by 74 per cent. This was achieved by redesign, the use of recycled materials, de-materialisation (less is more) and improved manufacturing efficiencies. "In 2018, through our Carbon Neutral Floors program, Interface compensated for the remaining footprint by purchasing carbon offsets from renewable energy, fuel switching and reforestation projects.”
The Carbon Neutral Floors program forms part of Interface’s Climate Take Back initiative, which commits itself to production that reverses global warming.
"Always think low embodied carbon and circularity when choosing raw materials or products."