20 years of progress: Tire piles dwindling amid expanded recycling

Jan. 1, 2020
Over the past two decades, tire recycling has grown to become a viable enterprise that helps the environment while presenting new business opportunities.
Over the past two decades, tire recycling has grown to become a viable enterprise that helps the environment while presenting new business opportunities.

Twenty years ago, the nation was littered with more than a billion junked tires and only 11 percent of the annually generated castoffs were being sent to a suitable end-use market. Some 100 million stockpiled tires remain today, and that number continues to shrink, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA).

Although only a single viable market for scrap tires existed in 1990, there are now several available avenues that consume nearly 85 percent of the country's yearly output of discarded tires.

Since 1990, the RMA's recycling efforts have been spearheaded by Michael Blumenthal, who began as the Scrap Tire Management Council's executive director and is now an RMA vice president.

"Lack of information" has been a key shortcoming, he says.

"One of the first efforts we undertook was to collect, develop and distribute timely and pertinent information to the scrap tire industry," Blumenthal recalls. "Between 1990 and 1996 reports and documents on virtually every facet of the industry were published. Information collection and distribution remains a critical practice to this day."



Another challenge was market development. In 1990, only tire- derived fuel (TDF) was at the forefront. The scrap tire industry was trying to develop other outlets, yet the appropriate technology and opportunities did not materialize until 1994.

In the early 1990s, Congress was actively considering scrap tire legislation, and it enacted a mandate to use ground rubber in federally funded asphalt pavement projects. "The result of that mandate was a disaster," and it "taught a powerful lesson" to those behind the emerging endeavors, according to Blumenthal.

"The scrap tire industry was under pressure to develop non-TDF markets at a time when the industry was not prepared for such an effort," he says.

"One of the very expensive lessons that had to be learned by government agencies was that the scrap tire industry has always been a demand-pull industry: Subsidizing the supply of processed scrap tires when the demand for it doesn't exist causes over- supply, falling prices and failing businesses. The Congressional mandate for road construction caused more problems than it solved," Blumenthal contends.

"Today the scrap tire industry new challenges from a wide array of sources. As scrap tire-derived products move into new markets, new questions and issues have arisen," he reports.

"The recession has hit states hard financially and many have been diverting scrap tire funds to finance other state programs. We continue to fight these diversions so that progress to-date is not reversed," says Blumenthal.



He goes on to point out that "our determination and resolve remain steadfast, as does our commitment to the industry and the environment. As the quote goes, ‘it ain't over till it's over.' I believe that's a very good way to describe our approach to scrap tires management."

"RMA and its tire manufacturer members recognized a serious environmental issue and invested significant resources, time and effort to make positive changes," recounts Charles Cannon, the organization's president and CEO.

"At a time when many things could have gone terribly wrong for the industry, tire manufacturers stepped up and did the right thing at the right time. Having achieved major success over the past two decades, RMA and our members have not relented and continue to work with a broad spectrum of scrap tire industry stakeholders and regulators to ensure that these successes are not reversed," he adds.

Rubberized asphalt, which is derived from scrap tires, is a longer-lasting, safer, less costly and environmentally friendlier alternative than traditional paving materials, according to Jeffrey Kendall, CEO of Liberty Tire Recycling.

It provides a new use for between 500 and 2,000 scrap tires per lane-mile of pavement. For a one-mile section of four-lane highway, some 2,000 to 8,000 tires are recycled.

"Rubberized asphalt resists cracking and rutting, improves skid resistance, decreases splash and spray in wet conditions and decreases maintenance costs," says Kendall, adding that in most cases the material is applied with the same equipment as traditional asphalt.



"As a truly innovative ‘green' product, rubberized asphalt is not just sustainable, but actually better than the traditional alternative," he asserts.

"Cracking in traditional asphalt is a result of vertical or horizontal movements beneath the overlay that are caused by traffic loads, temperature fluctuations and shifting earth," explains Kendall, noting how rubberized asphalt resists cracking and rutting "with superior elasticity and stiffness."

Other environmental factors include reducing noise pollution by up to five decibels on highways and providing a source of relief for high temperature zones caused by urban heat islands. (A heat island is an area that is significantly warmer than surrounding rural areas because developed land retains more heat.)

Rubberized asphalt's porous top layer cools down quicker than conventional asphalt, cooling road surfaces and diminishing the effects, according to Kendall.

For more information, visit www.rma.org and www.libertytire.com.

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