Wharton Has Been Walking on the Circular Economy for Years

By David Mazzocco, LEED AP
Associate Director of Sustainability and Projects, Wharton Operations

 

Interface Logo

 

In anticipation of IGEL’s 10th anniversary, Wharton Operations would like to showcase an IGEL founding sponsor, Interface carpet.  When I joined the Wharton community, I was pleased to hear Wharton Operations used Interface carpet for the majority of our projects.  Early in my career as a young professional making the case for ‘green building’, I found company founder and chairman Ray Anderson’s 1998 book Mid-Course Correction very influential.  It demonstrated how the vision of a single leader can challenge us to make real, sustainable change and, in his words, “become restorative through the power of influence.” Interface’s bold, pioneering vision to create a sustainable company and measure success beyond the bottom line steered the company away from the typical take-make-waste business model toward one that’s “renewable, cyclical, and benign.”  This mission not only defines a circular economy, it has also revitalized an industry.

Each year, the United States dumps approximately 4 billion pounds of carpet into our landfills; roughly 800 million square yards or equal to covering the floor area of Wharton’s Huntsman Hall 22,000 times over.  According to the Carpet & Rug Institute, 70% of all carpet is replaced each year for reasons other than wear, such as it’s the wrong color, a dated look or a change in tenant.  Carpet manufacturing is also a resource intensive process, consuming billions of pounds of petro-chemical and other non-renewable natural capital to provide the energy and base ingredients in the final product.  Take.  Make.  Waste.  This cannot go on indefinitely.

In 1994, Ray Anderson had his awakening when he realized his company was part of the problem and not part of the solution.  He challenged his company to “make history rather than just making carpet.” With Interface’s “Mission Zero” promise, a new focus emerged: to radically redesign processes and products and to pioneer new technologies and systems to eliminate any negative impact the company has on the environment by 2020.  Their innovative, holistic approach where everything is examined is an example every company should emulate.

In support of Penn’s Climate Action Plan, the Wharton Operations Green Campus program works to minimize solid waste and pursue sustainable building practices.   We must also uphold a level of quality within our facilities that one has come to associate with Wharton.  An effective carpet management strategy is part of that plan.  In 2012, Operations leadership visited Interface and were impressed with their manufacturing process, waste reclamation program and sustainability goals. Working with our vendor Metropolitan Flooring, we began using Interface carpeting almost exclusively.  Through Metropolitan and the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), all carpet removed from Wharton buildings is either returned to Interface to make new product or recovered for other industrial uses.  No carpet enters a landfill.

From a design standpoint, our projects group appreciate Interface’s aesthetic and high quality products that wear extremely well.  Of course from a sustainability perspective, their products meet our requirements to contain high recycled content, natural fiber options and adhere to strict indoor environmental quality standards; critically important for building occupants with chemical and allergen sensitivities.  Stemming from the company’s origins, Interface products are also a modular carpet tile rather than a roll product.  From an operations standpoint, the modularity provides flexibility in patterning, installation and maintenance.  If a tile is stained or damaged beyond repair, just that tile is replaced rather than the entire carpeted area minimizing waste, cost and down time to the affected area.  The damaged tile is then returned to the manufacturer to make new product, completing the cycle.

Other carpet companies have since started following the Interface model to varying degrees.  They provide great products and are used regularly across Penn’s campus.  Interface will always be the standard bearer, however, by taking a leadership role to demonstrate that the principles of sustainability and financial success can co-exist within business.  It created a new level of success that includes cultural dividends.  Innovation and leadership.  Values Wharton knows well.

So, on your next visit to Wharton, look down.  Know that the carpet you are walking on is doing more than covering the floor.  It is part of the solution.

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