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CARE conference: Recycling solutions take center stage

May 23/30, 2016; Volume 30, Number 24

By Ken Ryan

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 4.00.00 PMGreenville, S.C.—Scores of industry members convened at the 14th annual Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) conference here to discuss the ongoing challenges facing the carpet recycling market. The event welcomed a record numbers of attendees and exhibitors.

Bob Peoples, executive director of CARE, said the strong turnout amid tough economic conditions—driven primarily by lower oil prices—underscores the commitment of the recycling community, a network representing collectors, sorters, entrepreneurs and mills.

A year ago, oil prices were about $60 a barrel. To put this in perspective, $70 per barrel is roughly the baseline at which the recycling industry can be stable and healthy. Throughout 2015 and into early 2016 the price of oil fell to below $30 a barrel. At that point, it is much cheaper for vendors to buy virgin material than recycled content. Although the price of oil has rebounded to about $48 a barrel the industry would need a significant and prolonged uptick before the recyclers can profit. “The market is creating limitations that are hurting all of us,” Peoples explained.

Still, the work of CARE forges ahead. The voluntary product stewardship (VPS) program, which is supported by The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) and assists sorters of post-consumer carpet diverted from the nation’s landfills, has received $4.5 million in funding for 2016. Sorters may use funds from the program to partner with their customers to divert carpet and recycle carpet back into useful consumer products. These may include recycled carpet fiber, carpet cushion, broadloom, carpet tiles and a wide range of plastic products.

CARE announced at convention that the PET committee was disbanded in place of an “all fiber” task force, another nod to changing conditions in the marketplace. “It used to be that there was a polyester problem,” said Anthony Cline, operations manager for CARE. “But due to lower oil prices there is now a nylon problem and, thus, there is a fiber problem.”

The decline in oil prices was reflected in recent data showing a 7% decline in recycled output in the fourth quarter of 2015; Q1 2016 will be down as well, Peoples predicted.

Since the economic downturn, the use of polyester has grown dramatically; the issue for collectors and processors has been finding an aftermarket solution for the polymer. On that front, progress continues to be made. During the new products and technology session at the conference, several companies showed their latest tests and innovations toward turning post-consumer PET into a market-based, commercial solution. “These technologies are potential breakthroughs because it takes minimally processed PET carpet,” Frank Endrenyi, advisor to CARE and a polymer consultant, explained.

The School of Engineering and Institute of Materials Science at the University of Connecticut, for example, has developed a process that turns shredded PET into particleboard, which can then be used in construction. The board, which is made of 20% post-consumer carpet, is structurally sound and formaldehyde free. Dr. Brian Brady, who presented at the conference, said his research group is now working on sound-dampening experiments. “In the past 12 months 85% of contractors purchased sound-proofing materials.”

Verdex Technologies, another presenting company, developed a process for the direct conversion of post-consumer PET carpet into high-value, high-volume nonwoven products containing nano/micro fibers. Such end-use products include medical gowns, house wraps and baby diapers.

Verdex has successfully completed two trials, according to Larry Marshall, founder and president.

Resinate Materials Group, a company focused on performance-driven green chemistry, is working on a process to turn PET waste into high-energy polyol. In polymer chemistry, polyols are compounds generally used to product other polymers; for example, coatings including polyurethane and adhesives contain polyols. “There are a lot of different end markets for this,” said Mark Maxwell, president, estimating the global polyol market at 20 billion pounds, with recycled and bio-based polyol growing at twice the rate of the overall polyol market.

The goal, the presenters said, is to take their concepts to trial stage, then marketability and, finally, scalability. Endrenyi was impressed with the presentations, which focused more on technology solutions for PET than in the past.

“Nobody left the room during the presentations, which is a good sign because we have had that in the past,” he said, adding that the progress toward developing market-based solutions for post-consumer PET “is not fast, but it is working.”