PORT CLINTON, Ohio-After plodding along for several years, the rubber recycling movement is finally catching fire, observes Fernley G. Smith, president of consulting firm Environmental Technologies Alternatives Inc. (ETA). A veteran in the rubber recycling industry, Mr. Smith said he always knew rubber recycling would take off. He just didn't think it would take 25 years.
Back in 1970, when Mr. Smith accepted a job to serve as president of Centrex Corp., a company that supplies the tire industry with reclaimed rubber, recycling was a relatively new business.
``I thought (recycling) was going to be a growth industry,'' he said. ``I guess I was way ahead of my time.''
``If you can stick around, things finally fall into place,'' he said. ``I feel very satisfied that I have devoted the past 25 years to recycling.''
After leaving Centrex in 1978, Mr. Smith worked as an executive for a variety of rubber recycling firms before retiring in 1992. He canceled his retirement a few months later to found ETA in Port Clinton.
``I thought it was time to stop managing people and make things happen technically,'' he said.
With the environmental movement picking up steam, rubber recycling technology needs to improve. However, smaller companies don't always have the financial resources to invest in technical development, Mr. Smith said.
``I started ETA because I felt the need to get people acquainted with what we had and to get others familiar with the next level of available technology.''
There are several reasons why the industry has made progress, Mr. Smith said. First of all, recycled materials no longer carry the negative stigma they did in the past.
``There's evidence that they add to performance,'' he said. ``They don't detract, which has been its historical characteristic.''
Secondly, the automobile industry is forcing tire and auto parts manufacturers to rethink their positions on rubber recycling, Mr. Smith said.
Once reluctant to embrace the movement, automakers now are at the forefront of the environmental movement.
``It used to be, two to three years ago, you'd take a recycled rubber part to an automaker and they'd turn it down,'' he said. ``The reaction now is: `Let's take a look and see how it works.'*''
Because the U.S. economy revolves around car manufacturing, the participation and leadership of the auto industry really gives a boost to recycling, Mr. Smith said.
``It'll be hard for companies in other industries to refute the findings of the auto industry.
``I envision a world car climate where waste recovery is vital to the viability of the industry,'' he said. ``In time, this will spill over to the other industries.''
It's not unusual for recycling movements to meet with resistance in their initial stages. Many rubber firms still hesitate to get involved in recycling, Mr. Smith said, but it's only a matter of time before they see that the industry's viability depends on it.
``There was a time when aluminum people didn't want to recycle aluminum,'' Mr. Smith said. ``They didn't see the wisdom in it.
``We don't have (total acceptance) in the polymer sectors, but it will gradually change as the momentum picks up.''