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Thinking Green

Tips for recycling building materials.

Recycling is a way of life for many individuals, communities and businesses concerned about protecting the environment and creating a better place for future generations. Schools are no different-continually searching for ways to cut down on waste and improve the environment where children learn.

Although many schools already recycle such common items as paper and plastic, some are taking a more proactive approach by including building supplies and materials on that list.

Don't throw it away

One of the areas schools are investigating is carpet recycling. More than 418 billion pounds of waste per year go into landfills, with 3.4 billion pounds of it being carpeting. While the United States currently has about 3,000 landfills, the number will be reduced to less than 1,000 by the year 2000, according to data from DuPont Flooring Systems, Dalton, Ga.

This will become more of an issue to schools replacing carpet when a landfill will no longer accept used carpet or will charge an exorbitant amount to dispose of it. Instead of paying the local dump, some schools are redirecting that money and requiring contractors to recycle the used carpet.

"One of our open-order contractors that supplies us carpet brought in a proposal for recycling our old carpet," says Jim Fesona, facilities manager, University of Colorado-Denver. In 1996, Fesona replaced the carpet in the 8,000-square-foot library's second floor at Auraria Higher Education Center, which is a shared facility of the university, Metro State College and Community College of Denver. "It didn't add any more to the cost of the project; instead of paying the installer to haul the carpet away and send it to the landfill, we paid the carpet manufacturer the same amount of money to recycle it."

Although this is a win-win alternative, it is not always feasible. "I think everybody wants to do it, but it is still logistically difficult," says Katherine Wise, director of public relations for the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI), Dalton, Ga. "You have pounds and pounds of dirty carpet. Rerolling it is a challenge in itself. Several fiber companies, however, have very active programs to get used carpet back to collection sites that are located all across the country."

For many schools, getting the old carpet to a recycling center can be an insurmountable task. If there is not a recycling center near your school, check with your contractor or with local suppliers to see if they are collecting carpet and sending it in bulk to a recycling center. One sure way of getting your carpeting recycled is to write into your specifications that the project requires the removal and recycling of existing carpet, making the contractor responsible for disposal.

After the Auraria project, Fesona has a standing arrangement with his local contractor, who maintains a recycling station at its warehouse, to recycle all of his carpet-no matter how many yards. "Recycling makes us all feel a lot better. It is a very positive thing on campus to be recycling and helping the environment," he says.

Another problem is that the carpet currently in educational facilities cannot always be recycled. "There are sorting problems, which have to be addressed," says Wise. All carpet manufactured today has an identification code stamped on the back stating what is in it.

"What is coming out of facilities right now is very difficult to sort, to know what type of nylon it is. In addition, backing and latex fillers have different kinds of compounds," says Wise. Much of the polymer from carpeting is not being reused to make carpet, it is going back into other products, including automobile parts, parking-lot bumpers and plastic lumber. "If somebody has a breakthrough where we are able to get purer polymer back again and it makes it economically or financially more appealing, recycling back into carpet will happen faster."

Breathing easier

Recycling is not the only environmental concern for educational facilities when it comes to carpet; indoor air quality is high on the priority list.

"We were very conscious of indoor air quality," says Fesona. "We did some air testing in this library facility prior to, during and after the new carpet was installed. Our air conditions did not change." When purchasing new carpet, look for products-carpet, carpet adhesives and cushion materials-that have the CRI indoor air quality testing program label. Also, vacuum the old carpet before removal and the floor area after the carpeting is removed. This will minimize airborne dust and other particulates.

"Our testing program has been extended to adhesives," says Wise. "When writing specs for carpet, schools should demand a low-emitting adhesive that bears the CRI label."

Also, keep in mind that the low-level VOC emissions and non-hazardous odor from new carpet dissipates within the first 48 to 72 hours after installation. During this time, ventilate the area with fresh air by opening windows, running fans or keeping the fan on the HVAC running continuously to circulate the air.

Walking softly

Another environmental concern for schools is vinyl asbestos tile (VAT). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that there are asbestos-containing materials in most of the nation's primary and secondary schools, often in floor tile. Any material that contains as little as 1 percent asbestos is subject to federal asbestos regulations.

If you are considering replacing vinyl floor tile in your school, first determine if the current tile contains asbestos. If you do have VAT, removal may not be the best course of action to reduce asbestos exposure. Improper removal can create a dangerous situation, according to EPA. VAT can become a hazard if it is damaged, disturbed or deteriorated. Intact and undisturbed asbestos materials do not pose a health risk.

According to EPA regulations, an accredited asbestos inspector must reinspect public and not-for-profit school buildings at least once every three years to reassess the condition of asbestos-containing materials. Schools also are required to monitor the condition every six months by a trained school custodian or maintenance worker. Before doing anything, check with your regional or local EPA office for specific regulations for your area.

Options for covering VAT include carpeting or retiling over the existing floor. When considering tile over tile, be sure to pay attention to elevations and transition areas. This also holds true for carpeting over tile. But just placing carpet over VAT is not considered an enclosure and is not an acceptable abatement procedure. Some manufacturers make carpeting specifically for this type of application. Another option is to cover the tile with a polyethylene sheet and then carpeting, being sure to seal all the edges. However, contact your local or regional EPA office before taking action to be sure your planned method meets guidelines.

If you do decide to remove the VAT floor, it can be done without being subject to EPA regulations. The key is to not crush, sand or scrape the tile. You must lift the tile up in pieces; do not pulverize them. If the tiles are crushed or pulverized, then they are regulated. Also, before you remove the tile, determine how you are going to dispose of it; some landfills may not accept VAT or may classify it as asbestos material and charge more.

Maintenance is key to the long life of any floor covering.

In addition to looking nice, carpet usually provides an extra benefit in preserving good IAQ, because carpet actually traps many airborne contaminants and contains them until they are extracted through vacuuming and other cleaning methods. This verifies the importance of a good carpet maintenance program.

The vacuum used should have a powerful air flow; adjustable brushes; and an enclosed high-filtration, disposable vacuum bag. The high-efficiency bag will hold the dirt in the bag instead of blowing it back into the room. Frequently change the bag to increase efficiency.

Vacuum high-traffic areas daily or more frequently, including corridors, break areas, classrooms, cafeterias and main traffic areas. Medium-traffic areas should be vacuumed two to three times per week and light-traffic areas at least once or twice a week. Periodic cleaning of all floor coverings is necessary to remove any buildup soil that remains after vacuuming. Carpet in schools should be cleaned at least two to three times during the school year, by dry extraction, absorbent-pad or bonnet method, dry-foam extraction method, hot-water extraction or rotary shampoo, depending on the carpet manufacturer's recommendations. Usually, this can be scheduled during breaks.

Floor tile requires different maintenance procedures. Vacuums are put aside for dust mops and strippers. When it comes to maintaining hard surfaces, some high-traffic areas, including hallways and entrances, may require dust mopping several times a day. Light- and medium-traffic areas should be spot mopped at least once each day. Hard-surface floor coverings should be stripped and refinished or recoated yearly. If the tile contains asbestos, be sure not to remove the protective coating-this could lead to chipping and cracking.

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