We had an opportunity to sit down with Bob Peoples, the Executive Director of the Carpet America Recovery Effort or CARE, a man who in 2002 took lead of the organization during its formation and left a few years ago to take over the Directorship of the ACS Green Chemistry Institute. He since has returned to CARE. Bob jokes the group is so committed to the concept of recycling it has even recycled its director.

At the time this whole recycling and reuse idea became a reality in the carpet industry, the EPA, several state governments and some NGOs came together to launch what is really a new industry. This group agreed to set targets for the diversion of carpet from landfills, set dates when they would achieve these goals, document their progress in annual reports and create an independent third-party organization to enable its growth. That was how CARE was born. The group is made up of a diverse group of players including carpet producers, post-consumer carpet collectors, recyclers, processors and companies that fashion products made from spent carpet.

Aside from funding, which is always a challenge for the group, Bob says a major snag for the CARE organization is the significant growth of polyester face fiber that shows up in the recycled material being collected across the nation. There are currently no real viable outlets for this material. This situation represents a major problem because when you collect used carpet you pretty much get what they give you – you can’t pick and choose the face fiber you collect. To secure the nylon you seek, you have to take everything else that comes with it, and you don’t know what you have until unload the truck.

The amount of polyester that’s ending up with collectors, which is somewhere in the 25% to 30% range of the total collected, is fast becoming a major problem. As a result, at the top of the CARE to-do list is developing outlets for polyester. At present there are some promising end uses for the fiber but nothing firm at this point.

Polyester is only one problem facing the nonprofit. The uncertainty generated by Washington and the lethargic economic environment has caused consumers and businesses alike to step back on making decisions to purchase just about everything, including new carpet. If new carpet is not being purchased and installed, old carpet is not being ripped out. That leaves recyclers wondering how to cover the overhead.

The biggest change in the world of carpet recycling over the past several years came in the form of the California Carpet Stewardship bill, or AB 2398. Signed in 2010 by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bill’s purpose was to divert carpet from the state’s swelling landfills. The law assesses $0.05 on every square yard of carpet sold in the state. The pounds of collection carpet in California are dispersed to the collectors/processors, which in turn become eligible for two kinds of reimbursement based on the end-use value material.

The processor, however, is paid on the poundage sold into the marketplace, not what has been collected. So that means if a processor collects one million pounds of material and sells and ships only 250,000 to a given customer, he will be reimbursed only on the 250,000 pounds. The remaining collected material goes to the landfill, to waste-to-energy recovery, or in some cases is never processed or shipped out of the U.S. and often to China, and as a result is not eligible for reimbursement. The fees are also intended to help fund the development of this new industry by helping to generate new end uses for this post-consumer carpet that is collected.

The program, which kicked off in the summer of 2011, has seen steady growth for the past five quarters starting in the third quarter of 2011. In the second quarter the program saw a nice uptick, according to Bob. With only five quarters of data he tells me that the program has netted about a 35% diversion from the landfill rate and is running about 18% recycled output. Because the second and third quarters are usually the strongest ones in the carpet sector, the news that there was a drop in the third quarter in both the diversion rate and the recycled output has become quite puzzling for all involved. Bob said the conclusion he draws from this data is that even though they have five quarters of experience under their belt, they don’t have enough data to accurately predict what the performance of the market will be on a quarter-to-quarter basis.

What to expect down the road? Bob tells me that at this point there are around 10 other states contemplating a program similar to the 2398 program in California, six of which appear to be very serious. The hope on the part of CARE is that if and when some of these states move forward, there is some coordination among all the players to avoid reporting and logistical nightmares in the future.

Bob says that when all is said and done, CARE’s mission was still predicated on a voluntary approach to developing market-based solutions for recycling postconsumer carpet. He says they are currently looking at exactly what has happened in California and how much the law may or may not have influenced actual diversion from landfill when compared to other parts of the country. He says those elements are not understood well enough at this point, but he hopes they will get a handle on that in the next quarter or so.

We’re going to keep tabs on the efforts of CARE going forward and will try to keep you all abreast of the many developments that will no doubt be on the road ahead for Bob and the many involved with the organization. Bob, it’s good to have you back, recycled or not.