"This is going to be a year of recovery," Swift said. "I've been telling people for months now that we're going to see an uptick in COVID cases and the economy is going to swoon during the winter. And that's what we're seeing," he said.
As more vaccines are administered and people become more confident, he expects the turnaround to take hold.
Recent statistics from the ACC show the use of rubber processing chemicals fell by 18.6 percent for the first 11 months of 2020.
That's the largest decrease over that time for the 28 different specialty chemical categories the ACC tracks. Volume for all those specialty chemicals combined was down 7.4 percent for the first 11 months.
He termed the segment "one of the worst affected industries in terms of COVID-19 because the rubber processing chemicals are largely used when tires are made, or belts and hoses, things like that."
With tire production grinding to a near halt in April, thanks in large part to the shutdown of vehicle manufacturers, it's no surprise that demand for tires, belts and hoses dropped dramatically as well.
ACC tracks the production of rubber processing chemicals using 2012 as a baseline year to measure consumption.
The segment's index in February 2020, before the full weight of COVID-19, was 100.9, meaning consumption was 0.9 percent higher than the 2012 mark.
"Within two months, that fell over 60 percent. Well over 60 percent, to 37.1. It's come back pretty much steady since that April low. We just had one month of retreat, which was essentially September. That could have been impacted by some of the hurricanes," Swift said.
The latest statistics through November show the index of usage has recovered to 95.7 percent, just 4.3 percent off the baseline total of 2012.
"It largely parallels production of tires and other rubber products as well, although it's dominated by tires," he said.
While ACC does not project usage of rubber processing chemicals in the future, the group does look at broad finished goods markets.
Production of rubber and plastics goods were expected to fall 7.8 percent for 2020.
"We're expecting a 7-percent gain in terms of volume, not quite a full recovery (in 2021)," Swift said. "But 3.6 percent next year. We begin to approach the pre-COVID level, possibly as early as the second half of this year, but definitely the first half of next year."
This finished rubber and plastics goods production forecast can be an indicator of demand for rubber processing chemicals.
"What drives that is motor vehicles and parts, largely," Swift said. "The light vehicle industry and medium- and heavy-duty trucks are both affected by COVID," he said.
Construction is another market that impacts the use of rubber processing chemicals. Production of EPDM for building construction and material handling equipment helps drive the OE and replacement markets for machinery belts and hoses.
Housing starts also could spur increased demand. Mass mobility and population shifts to suburbs and exurbs also could drive housing starts, Swift said.
Specialty chemicals, such as those used in rubber processing, are categorized differently by the ACC than commodity chemicals.
Commodity chemicals, which are made in much greater volumes than specialty chemicals, have broad uses. Specialty chemicals are far more limited in their applications, sometimes only having one or two uses. Specialty chemicals typically are "relatively high value, with greater market growth rates," the association said.
"At the end of 2020, the chemical industry is well into its recovery from pandemic-induced recession," the association said in a year-end report and outlook. "Due to the chemical industry's significant contributions to the COVID-19 response, however, the losses in 2020 were comparatively less severe than for other manufacturing sectors."
This year, the ACC added, the industry is poised for growth.