Recycled Plastic Rugs and Beyond

Outdoor recycled plastic rugs reduce landfill waste
Photo by Patrycja Chociej on Unsplash

When we say recycled plastic rugs, what pops in your head? Do you imagine molded plastic mats designed to withstand the most spill-prone toddlers? Or do you envision a plush carpet from a high-end retailer?

Regardless of what materialized in your mind’s eye, you are correct.

If you are in the market for a new rug, recycled rugs provide a variety of options. Recycled rugs are an excellent, eco-friendly and innovative solution to your household design needs. 

However, the market for recycled rugs is diverse and a little bit complicated.

You can find outdoor recycled plastic rugs for your patio or other outdoor space. But companies are also using recycled material for numerous types of indoor rugs, as well as other sustainable, biodegradable but “virgin” material rugs.

In this post will give a rundown of the types of recycled rugs, both plastic and cotton, as well as biodegradable options. Finally, we will cover some of the disadvantages of recycled plastic rugs you should be aware of.

The Case for Recycled Rugs

In the U.S. alone, we throw away 5 billion pounds of carpeting per year. Only a small percentage is recycled. Plastic is also recycled at a very low rate across the world. Companies that create recycled plastic rugs can divert huge amounts of waste destined for the landfill or incineration.

In addition, the case for recycled plastic rugs, or any rug made from recycled material, is similar to the case for any recycled product.

Using recycled materials is less carbon-intensive, and that means less greenhouse gas emissions.

Also, the world is drowning in plastic. We, as a society, should stop creating more plastic. But in the meantime to that far, far off goal, we have do do something with all the plastic we already created. Especially all the single-use plastics we throw in our recycling cans every day.

Plastic is recycled at dismally low rates. The EPA estimates the U.S. recycled only 9% of plastic in 2018. If we use that plastic for a rug, or recycled plastic compost bin, or recycled plastic shoes, or whatever, it is better than burying or burning it.

Finally, when we purchase products made from recycled material, we send a signal to the market. By increasing demand for products made from recycled material, including recycled plastic rugs, we can induce more companies to use recycled material in their products.

Types of Recycled Rugs

Recycled plastic rugs can be soft as non-recycled yarn
Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

You might be surprised how many different types of recycled rugs are on the market today. Whether you want a splash of color for your patio, a slip-proof rug for your steps, a mat to keep dirt out of your house, or even get a high-end area rug, you can find a recycled option.

When shopping for rugs made from recycled material, they generally fall into these categories:

  • Outdoor recycled plastic rugs: often made of harder, durable plastic; waterproof and low maintenance
  • Indoor recycled plastic rugs: softer and made of recycled threads, often spun out of fibers made from recycled plastic
  • Recycled rubber mats: typically made from recycled tires or pre-consumer industrial rubber; very durable and tough, perfect for door mats.
  • Indoor recycled cotton rugs: made from cotton textile waste

Durable and Stylish: Outdoor Recycled Plastic Rugs

Companies do not use plastic because they are hell bent on destroying the planet. Plastic has reigned supreme for many decades because it is a very useful material. It is durable, light, and lasts many, many years.

You will find that the positive characteristics of plastic make it ideal for outdoor uses.

Amazon has numerous options for outdoor recycled plastic rugs. We have tested the Fab Habitat line and are impressed with the quality.

Fab Habitat Outdoor Recycled Plastic Rugs

Fab Habitat’s 100% recycled plastic rug is durable.  Perfect for a patio, mud room, kids play room, or any of high traffic area you want to brighten up.

Fab Habitat says the rugs are mildew resistant, as well as UV resistant. During our testing of the rug, it sat outside in an area that is prone to mold but it has held up well with no signs of encroaching mold.

The company makes the rug from polypropylene, a plastic found in premium food grade plastics.

It is very washable, you can hose it off or if necessary, scrub with a hard bristle brush.  The material feels plastic-y, so you might not want to use it as a living room rug.

Although Fab Habitat provides limited info on how to dispose of a rug after its useful life. It seems possible that you can throw it in the recycling can, but it is hard to say whether it will actually getting recycled.

However, the rugs are  very durable and will likely last a long time. If you take the time to maintain it, you can always donate it for someone else to use.

In terms of social responsibility, Fab Habitat rugs are certified by Good Weave. Good Weave is a non-profit that ensures child labor is not used in the supply chain.

Fab Habitat mentions supporting some charitable interests, but they are not a B Corporation (though the B corp certification has its shortcomings) nor do they have much information about how they support their charities. 

Fab Habitat doesn’t provide much info on disposing of their products nor does it seem like they’ll take them back at the end of their life to be recycled into a new rug.

Options for Indoor Rugs Made from Recycled Material

It is easy to find high quality rugs for indoors made from recycled materials. Many high-end retailers sell recycled rugs with post-consumer plastic in them.

Indoor recycled plastic rugs are typically made from PET, a plastic more commonly found in water bottles. PET is recycled and turned into a yarn.

A benefit of PET is it is typically comes from food grade plastic and thus is subject to the oversight of the Food and Drug Administration. This lowers the chances of you bringing nasty chemicals into your house via a new rug.

When you think about rugs made of recycled plastic you might worry that the rugs would be stiff or scratchy, but that is not the case.

Just like how many clothing lines are using recycled nylon or polyester in clothing, creating soft, supple materials, rug makers follow a similar process.

Fab Habitat, profiled above, has many soft PET-based rugs available.

Crate and Barrel also has a line of beautiful area rugs with recycled plastic threads.

Flor: Rugs Reincarnated

Flor is a rug company that uses recycled plastic in their rugs. They have an innovative approach to carpeting, delivering their rugs in small square pieces that you assemble at home.

You apply stickers, provided by Flor, to the back of the carpet tiles to “stitch” the rug together into a whole. This allows you to fully customize your rug, perfect for odd-shaped rooms.

If you have a tendency to spill large glasses of red wine on your rugs (um, ok, you got me!), Flor rugs can be replaced in pieces rather than trashing the whole rug.

Have you ever had to dispose of an old rug? A rolled-up rug is huge.

Unlike most of your daily trash that piles up deceptively over many days and is hauled off in small bags each week, an old discarded rug is hard to ignore.

Rolled up and placed on your curb, an old rug is obviously a landfill-filler-upper.

The good news is Flor goes one step further and closes the loop with their rugs. After the end of their useful life, Flor will take back their rugs and recycle them again into another rug. Flor gives your rug a second, or since it was a recycled rug in the first place, a third or fourth life.

Flor is a legit green company, using renewable energy in their factories and striving to reduce their footprint in numerous different ways. This includes piloting with carbon negative manufacturing approaches and carbon negative materials.

Smaller Sized Options for Recycled Plastic Rugs

Besides recycled rugs for your big spaces, you can buy recycled rugs for those little spots in your house in need of a rug.

Waterhog sells a line of recycled plastic rugs, available on L.L. Bean or on Amazon, that include stair treads, mats, and other smaller options.

We have tested the stair treads and found them to be both attractive and durable. You will need to provide some type of non-slip solution, such as sticky pads or glue on the undersides since they do move as you go up and down the stairs.

Recycled rubber mats are an excellent option for entryways. You can find dozens of options on Amazon.

Pay attention to the specifications though, searching for “recycled rubber mats” on Amazon often surfaces many non-recycled rubber mats.

Recycled Cotton Rugs

Recycled plastic rugs reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Photo by John Anvik on Unsplash

We have searched far and wide for recycled rugs made from non-plastic material. Your options are limited here.

Hook and Loom uses recycled cotton to make their rugs. The company cleans donated textiles, sorting it into piles by color.

Snaps, zippers, and buttons are removed and the textiles pulled apart until they are back to colored fiber form. This fiber is then spun into brand new colorful yarns.

Hook and Loom also has a strong environmental commitment to avoid harmful dyes and other unsustainable materials. In addition to recycled cotton rugs, Hook and Loom sells undyed wool rugs and certified 100% organic cotton rugs.

Fab Habitat also sells rugs made from 100% recycled cotton.

Disadvantages of Recycled Materials in Rugs

One downside of using recycled plastic in rugs is the fact that in most cases (with the exception of Flor rugs), that will be the last time that material is used in a productive way.

Once plastic is woven into a rug, it will very likely be discarded into a landfill at the end of its useful life.

Another potential concern, especially with recycled plastic rugs, is microplastics. We discussed the problem of microplastics in textiles before. Recycled plastic rugs have similar issues.

Microplastics are, simply, pieces of plastic that are less than 5 mm in diameter, or about the size of a sesame seed and often much smaller, potentially microscopic.

Filling your house with rugs made of material that can slowly shed microscopically sized pieces of plastic is less than ideal. That said, we have not seen any studies suggesting there are health impacts of using recycled plastic in rugs.

Microplastics in Rugs Keeps Plastic Pollution From the Ocean

Most of the scientific community’s concern with microplastics is the shedding that happens when you wash textiles in a washing machine. These microplastics are too small to be filtered out by municipal water systems.

Microplastics eventually make their way to rivers and oceans. It is a pernicious pollutant that floats around and is eaten by living organisms. Then maybe we eat that organism, such as a fish!

A recent study by Stanford found that almost 400 types of fish are eating microplastics. Of these, over 200 are commercially important. That is, we fish them out of the ocean to put on our dinner plates.

A rug, though less of a durable product than a rain barrel or compost bin made from recycled plastic, is different from a shoe or pair of shorts. You likely won’t be throwing your new recycled plastic rug in the washing machine.

By capturing plastic waste in a long-lasting rug, hopefully for many years, you are putting a waste product that otherwise would end up in a landfill to good use.

It also seems superior to putting recycled plastic into clothing because of the aforementioned microplastic shedding problem. Though you can take steps to mitigate the negative impacts of washing textiles with plastic-based fabrics.

Things to Consider With Non-Plastic Eco-Friendly Rugs

If you are concerned about microplastics or prefer natural materials in your house, you have other options.

Many retailers sell rugs made of natural, biodegradable materials. Examples include jute rugs, sisal rugs made from agave plants, and rugs made of coconut fibers, or coir.

How the Heck Do You Compost a Rug?

One challenge with outfitting your home with large biodegradable items such as rugs or maybe biodegradable mattresses, is what to do with it at the end of its useful life.

Burying a biodegradable rug or mattress in a landfill defeats the purpose of choosing eco-friendly materials. When material is buried in a hermetically sealed landfill, it breaks down without the help of aerobic bacterial.

Anaerobic decomposition releases methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that is multiple times stronger than carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately, not many companies, if any, take responsibility for the “grave” phase of the cradle-to-grave cycle of their organic or biodegradable rugs. And we are not aware of composting facilities that will take a large mattress or rug for composting.

Natural Materials May Not Be Better for Global Warming

And when global warming is the preeminent environmental challenge facing humans today, it is unclear whether making rugs from natural materials is more or less energy intensive.

If a rug made of natural material causes more emissions, then it is unclear whether it is actually a more sustainable option.

Despite the questions about microplastics, the record is pretty clear that when companies use recycled material it is less carbon intensive.

So when you buy a new rug you will be faced with a choice. When choosing between a rug made from virgin plastic or mixed material rugs, such as wool with a plastic-based binding, going with recycled material is typically superior from a global warming perspective.