It was 18 years ago that the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) was formed by the carpet industry to develop market-based means of reducing the amount of post-consumer carpet that goes to the nation’s landfills in essence giving birth to a brand new industry. The organization recently released its 2019 Annual Report discussing its progress during the year. We have an opportunity to sit down with Bob Peoples, to talk not only about the group’s progress last year, but also how the COVID-19 lockdown impacted CARE’s collection and activities this year. The following are excerpts from that conversation, which you can listen to in its entirety here.

TF: I wanted to talk about the CARE 2019 Annual Report, but we also have to talk about how coronavirus lockdown effected post-consumer carpet collection this year. Quite a divergence, isn’t it?

Peoples: Yes, it is indeed an interesting contrast because we had probably one of our best years ever in 2019, and we were staged with great momentum going into 2020. So much so that our annual conference, which was scheduled for the second week of May in Portland, Ore., unfortunately had to be canceled due to COVID-19. The theme of that conference was going to be “Carpet Recycling Comes of Age” with CARE turning 18 years old. We were definitely moving in the right direction after a long time. But COVID-19 has had a very negative impact on the carpet recycling industry, as well as many other industries.

TF: Talk about new technologies. That appears to be a key factor in the growth of carpet recycling.

Peoples: There have been a number of new technologies that we have been talking about and perhaps one of the most exciting, because it has potential to have a big impact, is the concept of chemical recycling. Most people are aware of the plastic waste challenge that we face around the world. There is a great deal of attention being focused on packaging. So some major brands like Coke, Pepsi, Lever Brothers, Proctor & Gamble and Evian, are asking their suppliers to explore ways to incorporate post-consumer plastics into the products that they produce in an effort to help solve the problems and its accompany waste. And carpet gets swept along. 

A number of big chemical companies have stepped up and committed to the concept of chemical recycling.  Let me note that chemical recycling is not a black and white answer, nor is it a black and white concept. The aspect of chemical recycling that I refer to, I think, is very powerful and has a great deal of potential in converting plastic materials back to their monomeric building blocks as pure is virgin, and you don’t have to mine oil out of the ground to get them, and they can go back into any plastic application. 

We are talking with a number of companies that have made commitments to do this and one of them in particular, Eastman Chemical, which launched a carbon renewal program late last year, which incorporates post-consumer PET carpet as a feedstock to make monomeric building blocks that go into a variety of products. They have also been working on developing a pilot plant and eventually a full-scale plant to use a feed-stock PET to depolymerize it so that you can make virgin PET polymer out of that material. This is just one of the projects on the forefront others are Loop Industries out of Canada and Indorama Corp., which is the largest PET producer in the world. So, there are many good possibilities. And despite the impact of COVID-19 the sustainability conversation around the world has continued to be very robust. I’m excited about this.

TF: How would you peg the health of the collection and processing community in 2019 in comparison to what’s happening today?

Peoples: We have seen a fairly significant pullback in terms of demand for material. A good portion of the nylons that get recycled out of carpet as you know go into the automotive sector. With the shutdown of the automotive sector, the companies that process that material and prepare it for injection molding of those big black parts you see under the hood of your car, they basically shut off all the raw material flows. So, the recyclers have nowhere to move that material right now. As a result, they have had to curtail their collections. 

It’s interesting that in California we do have a subsidy program and it’s a very robust program in terms of the amount of money that’s paid for a long time. We did have good markets for nylons, but we had no market for PET or a very limited markets for PET. As a result, we put a pretty substantial bounty on PET. And today we see far more PET out of carpet being recycled in California than we do the nylons at this particular point in time. So, we know that the economics are the key factor in terms of success here, and we’ve had some really good success with PET in California because of that.

TF: At this point, if I’m not mistaken, California is the only state that has a program like the CalRecycle program that oversees the recycling of post-consumer carpet in that state. What is happening in the other states?

Peoples: You’re right, California’s the only state that has a law on the books and CARE is the carpet stewardship organization to administer that program, and we’re grateful for that opportunity. There have been probably a handful of states five or six over the last couple of years that have had discussions, a few have introduced Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR legislation similar to the program in California. None of those laws have gone forward at this particular point in time. What is going to happen going forward into the second half of 2020 and in to 2021 is anybody’s guess at this point in time. But I think a lot of the focus has been diverted from those types of lofty objectives and really focusing on the basics of getting, getting societies and communities jump-started for the second half of this year.

TF: Let me ask you about the collectors and the processors in this business. They have been dealt a serious blow this year a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. Talk about 2019 and bring us into this year.

Peoples: Like I said, 2019 was a really good year for us. And one of the things we implemented was the Voluntary Product Stewardship program (VPS), which was funded by the carpet industry. We added a component to that that enabled recyclers to deal with some of the PET they collect and can’t move by supporting two pilot kiln projects that we set up. That program took off and was really starting to gain traction and go well, and then we got hit with COVID-19 and both of the outlets pretty much shut down their demand for the material. One of those units decided to stop using post-consumer carpet altogether and switch to natural gas.