Architecture & Design is proud to announce Interface® as the official sponsor of the ‘Waste Elimination’ category at the 2019 Sustainability Awards. Zero waste is in the DNA of Interface and an active participant in sustainability initiatives towards the future.  

Counting down the days until the awards, we spoke to Aidan Mullan, the Interface Engineering and Sustainability Manger and discussed company initiatives, process and methods, and where the evolution of technology is headed. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your role at Interface? 

I am the Engineering and Sustainability Manager. I joined Interface 9 years ago and my role at the time was two-fold; to work with the company to achieve our Mission Zero goals – eliminate any negative impact our company has on the environment by 2020. And to advocate the sense of purpose, embedding it within Interface and Australian culture. 

I’ve been working with the staff at Interface on a whole range of sustainability initiatives and at the same time working on the engineering aspects of the factory. As part of Climate Take Back - an evolution from Mission Zero, I’ve re-engineered major changes across the ANZ business and am very pleased with the progress we’re making.

Did the role of ‘Sustainability Manager’ exist before you arrived at Interface? How long has that been a focused role within the company?

The significance of the sustainability role solidified in 1994 when Mission Zero was established by our founder Ray Anderson. With the Mission Zero goals set, we’ve been gathering information on our environmental performance since 1996. In other words, how much we take, in terms of materials and energy, how much we make, in terms of product, and how much we waste, in terms of wastes and emissions so we can manage them correctly. Over the last 25 years, we have reduced the average carbon footprint of our carpet over its full lifecycle by 69%, the lowest in the industry. We’ve reduced our water used at our manufacturing sites by 89%, and 89% of our energy used across all our manufacturing sites is from renewable sources.

Everything is purposeful and contributes towards the goal to eliminate waste and harmful emissions while increasing the use of renewable materials and energy sources. We are very much aware of the challenges posed by our new mission - Climate Take Back. We need to take a greater collaborative effort with stakeholders outside the Interface business.

How have you seen the culture change shift at Interface? Can you tell us more about that? 

Back in 1994, Interface’s journey started with a very inspirational leader - our Founder and Chairman Ray Anderson. He has been a compass for our journey, by working and gathering the perspectives and ideas of environmental thinkers to gain a sound understanding of what it means to run a business sustainably. There were redesigns of processes and products and a drive to pioneer new technologies and systems that reduce or eliminate waste and harmful emissions while increasing the use of renewable materials and energy sources. This naturally changed mindsets and attitudes which ignited a passion for sustainability within our people and company. This has become a part of our corporate DNA and shaped our culture. 

When our CEO Jay Gould joined Interface, he could see that running a business sustainably is proven profitable, but did not want to stop there. He took the efficiency of the company forward another step, from doing no harm with Mission Zero, to taking restorative action with Climate Take Back - our new mission which invites other companies to join us as we commit to running our business in a way that is restorative to the planet and creates a climate fit for life. Globally, we are climate optimists, and we believe that taking simple, small actions for the environment can go on to have powerful ripple effects.

In the time that you’ve been in business, how have you seen the carpet tile/ flooring industry develop with respect to sustainability?

In my 9 years with the company there have been fundamental shifts in the business models and processes, conversations led by the market as well as the culture of the organisation, all contributing to our sustainability journey. A milestone achievement was our announcement made in 2018 that all of the flooring products we sell - carpet tile, LVT and rubber – are carbon neutral, across the entire product life cycle. This begins with raw materials and continues through manufacturing, transportation, maintenance and ultimately end-of-life product takeback and recycling through ReEntry®. Our aim is to be a carbon negative company by 2040. Twenty-five years ago, we set out to eliminate any harm we may have on the environment by 2020. Today we’re almost at the summit and we are now focused on the future and being restorative.

Interface’s website talks about your mission Climate Take Back. What does this entail? Are you able to provide more detail about your overall sustainability strategy?

We’re convinced that a fundamental change needs to happen in our global response to global warming. And we need to think beyond limiting the damage caused by climate change. We now believe “doing no harm” to the environment is not enough and start thinking about how we can run our business in a way that creates a climate fit for life. We believe we can reverse global warming if we focus on four key areas:

  1. Live Zero – Do business in ways that gives back whatever is taken from the Earth. This carries our Mission Zero principles forward of taking only what can be replaced.
  2. Love Carbon – Stop seeing carbon as the enemy and start using it as a resource. Carbon is a building block of life. We are actively exploring raw materials that use waste carbon or sequester carbon to make our products.
  3. Let Nature Cool – Support our biosphere’s ability to regulate the climate. Right now we're interfering with the Earth's natural regulation systems by polluting our air with excess carbon and undermining life’s ability to regulate the climate. We need to change our business practices and allow nature to do its job: cool. 
    Our Factory as a Forest pilot project, for example, was started to operate our factories in a way that mimics the ecosystem. Our first pilot project was in New South Wales where we took the River-Flat Eucalypt Forest on Coastal Floodplains as a reference habitat for our Minto factory. Measuring the ecosystem services the forest could provide, we challenged our employees to create ideas the factory could implement to make it perform more like the local ecosystem –such as using wetlands and roof gardens to purify water – to bridge performance gaps between the factory and the forest. Today we’re starting to implement these design principles in other manufacturing sites.
  4. Lead Industrial Re-revolution – Transform industry into a force for climate progress. What’s needed now is industry that works with nature, not against it, and creates new business models to drive positive change. 

Does this extend beyond the manufacturing stage and post-use disposal?

Looking beyond the take-make-waste industrial model, we looked to providing a local, responsible solution for our products at the end of its serviceable life. ReEntry zeros out any waste from the system by disassembling the component materials of reclaimed flooring to be reused into new flooring time and again. This helps create a circular economy – designing out waste and to Living Zero. Within our Love Carbon pillar of Climate Take Back mission, we continue to innovate means to create new carpet from end of life flooring. In fact, we’ve created a prototype of our first carbon-capturing tile. Leading the way to decarbonisation and continuous carbon footprint reduction.

Technology has come a long way with a path set on continual improvements and efficiencies. In the early days of circular economy, the challenge was in the collection and separation of materials in post consumer carpet. Through innovation and engineering of our Cool Blue backing system, we were able to feed compatible materials through to create a 98% recycled or bio-based content backing that is as high in quality and performance. That was one of the bigger, more significant changes in technology.

I was reading about your prototype tile that traps carbon and creates carbon negative environments. Could you tell me more about it?

Our Proof Positive prototype carpet tile is a proof of concept that shows that we can manufacture a carpet tile that is carbon negative. The bio-based materials used in manufacturing the tile, have sequestered carbon before being converted to synthetic durable materials that can be used to make new products. As a net result of using these materials and of making the tile in energy efficient factories largely powered by renewable energy, there is less carbon in the atmosphere after the tile was made than if it hadn’t been made at all.

The average Interface carpet tile has a cradle-to-gate carbon footprint of 6.1 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per square metre – an industry low. But the Proof Positive prototype tile has a carbon footprint of negative 2 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per square metre. Recycling the tile through Interface’s ReEntry system keeps the carbon locked in the product within a close-looped system. Take note that the tile doesn’t actually absorb carbon from the atmosphere when it is installed. At that stage it just looks great.

What does the ‘Waste Elimination’ category entail for you at this year’s Sustainability Awards? What would you like to see in the projects for this category in the nominations and shortlisting? 

It would be interesting to see new processes and innovations in eliminating waste in the built environment and waste re-used and recycled back into these processes. 

A project that highlights and respects the model of the circular economy and influences the way designs and projects are created to achieve sustainable design on a global scale for the future.