Twenty years ago, before the tire industry and federal and state governments began developing markets and programs to rid the nation of scrap tires, you couldn't give away these used-up products.
Waste tires were considered worthless for the most part and, unfortunately, were discarded indiscriminately in landfills or tossed in creeks and along roadsides.
It took a Herculean effort on the part of the tire industry and state and federal governments to clean up the piles and create programs and markets that brought the scrap-tire problem under control.
Flash forward to today: The majority of scrap tires in the U.S. are reused, retreaded or burned as tire-derived fuel.
How ironic it is, then, that the U.S. scrap tire industry now faces a new threat—not from the lack of demand for its basic raw material, but from the growing demand for it overseas.
This has resulted in an increasing number of waste tires being diverted to foreign countries, depriving some recyclers in the U.S. market of the products needed to sustain their businesses.
As often is the case, this trend has started in California, where some recyclers have seen business decline by as much as 30 to 40 percent as a result of waste tires being exported overseas instead of remaining in the U.S.
Haulers are paying tipping fees of as little as $20 a ton to deliver whole waste tires to ports in California, where the tires are baled and sent overseas in back-haul cargo containers.
This compares to as much as $50 a ton tipping fees haulers pay to deliver waste tires domestically. The $30 a ton difference is what's driving the waste tires to the ports instead of to U.S. recyclers, some of which are concerned that if this trend grows, haulers will move into other states to secure additional sources of waste tires.
That could upset established recycling operations in those locales, as well.
Finding uses for more waste tires worldwide is indeed a good thing. But this latest wrinkle is definitely throwing a wrench in the business plans of U.S. tire recyclers that rely on a steady flow of tires.
Still, this issue really is one of competition and the growth of the global scrap tire industry.
As a spokeswoman from the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery put it, “Tire haulers are going to take their tires where it will cost them less, or even where they can earn something for them.”
In a global marketplace, it will be up to domestic scrap tire recyclers to respond to the challenge.
What an interesting twist of fate for the once lowly waste tire—which now has become a valuable international commodity rather than the garbage it was once viewed as not that long ago.