WASHINGTONMichael Blumenthal often feels like Major Major, a character in Joseph Heller's iconic novel Catch-22.
Like Major Major, he's never in his office.
I've been in my job for 1,248 weeks, said Mr. Blumenthal, vice president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association and leader of the RMA's scrap tire activities. Of those weeks, I have had probably 1,220 different weekly sched-ules.
It's rare I have two weeks in a row with the same schedule, he said. It's the nature of the beast.
Since 1990, Mr. Blumenthal has been on the road for the RMAtestifying before state legislatures, talking to state legislators and regulators, meeting with industry stakeholders, helping to write state legislation and industry standards, delivering speeches, hosting conferences and generally spreading the gospel of high-value, sustainable end-use markets for waste tires.
That breakneck schedule will end July 11, when Mr. Blumenthal retires after 24 years with the association. That's not a bad run, considering that Mr. Blumenthal never expected to get the job in the first place.
All Mr. Blumenthal wanted to do, he said, was obtain the RMA as a client for Malcolm Pirnie (now ARCADIS U.S. Inc.), the environmental engineering firm he worked for.
After obtaining his M.S. in biology from Michigan State University and his M.B.A. in industrial marketing from Baruch College of the City University of New York, Mr. Blumenthal went to work for Oxford Energy Co. in both California and Connecticut.
Selling TDF (tire-derived fuel) in the late 1980s was a real challenge, Mr. Blumenthal said. Oxford Energy was only the second company in the scrap tire business, he added, and the idea of burning tires as fuel met with widespread opposition from both government officials and environmentalists.
By 1989 Mr. Blumenthal was at Malcolm Pirnie as a solid waste specialist. One day he read in Tire Business that the RMA was forming both the Scrap Tire Management Council (STMC) and a Scrap Tire Advisory Committee. He figured if he could get appointed to the committee, he could get work for his company from the association.
Mr. Blumenthal approached his friend Mary Sikora, president of the Recycling Research Institute, who was working with tire manufacturers on various projects.
I asked Mary if she would help me get on the committee, and she said, 'Absolutely,' he said. I asked her how I should approach the RMA, and she said, 'Apply for the STMC job.'
I said, 'Are you nuts? I'm too young, and I'm not a tire industry guy!' She said, 'Michael, apply.'
Mr. Blumenthal applied and was called to Washington for an interview, still believing he had no chance of getting the job. I went on vacation, and when I came home there was a message waiting, he said. It was the RMA. They started talking about salary, benefits, this and that, and I said, 'What are you talking about?'
They said, 'You're our Number One candidate!' he said. No one could have been more surprised than me.
The surprise of winning the STMC job was perhaps not completely pleasant, for the tire industry faced all sorts of daunting challenges in 1990 on the issue of scrap tires.
Tire manufacturers were the last major industry to form a group to address solid waste problems arising from their products, according to Mr. Blumenthal. At that time, they were taking a lot of heat from both Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
That was when the EPA estimated that there were 2 billion to 4 billion stockpiled scrap tires in this country, he said. The reality was that no one really knew.
Meanwhile, there was a California congressman trying to create national legislation on scrap tires, he said. His plan would have been very onerous and expensive for the industry. A lot of people in Congress and the states were trying to regulate scrap tires without any knowledge of the material or the industry.
This was the atmosphere when Mr. Blumenthal started at the STMC on Oct. 1, 1990.
My first day on the job, I flew to Washington with a half-filled corrugated box containing every scrap tire report that had been published at that time, he said. I went to Capitol Hill and had a meeting with three people from the RMA, some people from our member companies, one senator and three congressmen, including the California congressman who wrote the legislation.
They had no idea what they were doing, Mr. Blumenthal said of the legislators. We got lambasted. It was the worst meeting I've ever been in. They told us if we didn't get something going in six months, they would slam the tire bill through. It was all uphill from there.
But after that meeting, the RMA created a working plan to address the scrap tire issue. It was a good plan, Mr. Blumenthal said. They understood what had to be done.
The STMC's first real task, according to Mr. Blumenthal, was to create a management system for cement kilns to use scrap tires as fuel.
Oxford Energy, one cement kiln, a couple of pulp and paper millsthat was the entire marketplace at the time, he said. We spent three years talking to all factories and kilns across the country, creating interest in using TDF.
In 1992, TDF still comprised 100 percent of the scrap tire market, according to Mr. Blumenthal. That was the year he met Dana Humphrey, an engineering professor at the University of Maine who had come up with the radical idea of using tire shreds in civil engineering applications.
But there were also major steps backward during the period, such as the 1994 passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which contained a provision requiring that states use rubber-modified asphalt in highway projects as a prerequisite for receiving federal funds.
That well-intentioned provision turned out to be a major setback for the rubberized asphalt industry, according to Mr. Blumenthal. There just wasn't enough equipment or expertise to meet that mandate, he said.
Meanwhile, a bewildering array of rubber processing techniques arose between 1990 and 1995, ranging from pyrolysis to monofill, according to Mr. Blumenthal. Ground rubber made its first appearance then, but it was far from the well-engineered product it is today.
All the grinding equipment at that time was modified from grinding wood, metal or non-tire rubber, he said. Tire processing was in its infancy. To say the situation was a mess was an understatement.
But on the positive side, the states were becoming engaged in scrap tire management, he said. There was a lot of interest and a lot of money. There was no problem finding an audience to talk about scrap tires.
During this period, the STMC came out with its first market development study, its first study about possible leachates from ground and shredded rubber, and its first study on scrap tire firefighting and fire prevention. It also organized its first comprehensive workshop, inviting state legislators to seminars about scrap tire processing and end-uses.
All of this helped the organization gain the credibility and recognition it needed, especially the workshop, Mr. Blumenthal said.
That meeting got us into the center of the discussion, he said. After that, it was all follow-up work. We broke our meetings into regional conferences, which proved to be very successful venues.
In 1990, when the STMC started operations, only 11 percent of the 240 million scrap tires generated annually in the U.S. went to an end-use market, according to Mr. Blumenthal. By 1995, 55 percent dida 500-percent increase in five years. (Today the figure is around 85 percent.)
By the mid-1990s, the scrap tire market had begun to settle, Mr. Blumenthal said. The law of natural selection started to become apparent, he said. The more efficient companies became successful, the marketplace began to consolidate and the larger regional companies and markets began to bear fruit.
But another crisis arose in 1996, when TDA-filled highway embankments in Washington state combusted, casting doubt on the future of tire shreds in civil engineering projects. Messrs. Blumenthal and Humphrey created TDA standards under the American Society for Testing and Materials; this solved the fire problem, but TDA never quite recovered from it, particularly since TDF offered a higher return for processors, Mr. Blumenthal said.
The irony is that states with weak scrap tire market infrastructures never took to TDA, though it would have solved their scrap tire problem, he said.
The 2000s saw further consolidation in the scrap tire processing industry, with the number of processing companies shrinking from about 500 to fewer than 100, Mr. Blumenthal said. Yet the market dynamics of scrap tires remained consistent, he said.
It's better to manage tires with landfill than with stockpiles, he said. But we cautioned the states that if you go with landfills, you'll never create markets for scrap tires because you can't compete with landfills. That's still a problem in some western states today.
The state with the biggest scrap tire problem today is Colorado, where about 60 million of the estimated 100 million stockpiled tires in the U.S. are located. The day he gave this interview, Mr. Blumenthal was preparing to leave for Denver to testify in favor of new state legislation to clean up the stockpiles.
It was in the early 2000s that the STMC name was quietly retired, and all RMA scrap tire activities were rebranded with the association's name.
That decision was made, Mr. Blumenthal said, after a senior vice president of an RMA member company gave a speech at a solid waste recycling convention about the tire industry's efforts in scrap tire recycling.
They asked him what organization the industry had to address scrap tires, Mr. Blumenthal said. He said, 'We have the STMC.' They replied, 'But that's not a tire industry group!' He was dumbfounded. He told me, 'We have to rebrand the STMC. No one is giving the tire industry the credit.'
During the 2000s, the RMA's scrap tire strategy changed, according to Mr. Blumenthal. Instead of dealing mostly with end-users, the association started dealing more with the EPA, ASTM, the Federal Highway Administration and other organizations. That approach has paid off, he said.
Look at how the market has changed since the early 2000s, he said. A lot of older cement kilns have shut down, but infill, playground cover, mulch and new rubber-modified asphalt techniques have come into play. Our work with the FHWA has yielded new markets in rubber-modified asphalt and civil engineering.
One potential catastrophethe EPA redefining scrap tires as solid waste, rather than as a supplemental fuelwas averted, but it was a four-year project for the RMA to avert it, according to Mr. Blumenthal.
If scrap tires had been defined as solid waste, we would have lost the TDF market overnight, and we would have been back where we were in 1990, he said.
The RMA has also taken a leadership role in the ongoing problem of scrap tire stockpiles along the U.S.-Mexico border. A lot of things we were dealing with 25 years ago, we're still dealing with at the U.S.-Mexico border, Mr. Blumenthal said. They haven't really developed any markets there.
The RMA can be proud of its record of achievement in solving one of the nation's most persistent solid waste problems, according to Mr. Blumenthal.
Overall, the vast majority of problems are solved, he said. I expect the remaining stockpiles will be significantly diminished in five or six years.
Do I think we will ever get to 100-percent end-use for scrap tires? he asked.
I don't think so. There will always be someone who doesn't care about the environment and who will dump tires. But that will be the exception.
Although he would like to keep his hand in scrap tire issues after he retires, Mr. Blumenthal has no definite plans along those lines. One thing he definitely won't do, however, is enter the scrap tire business himself.
Part of the idea of retirement is to do less work, he said. Getting involved in scrap tire processing would mean even more work than what I'm doing now.
To reach this reporter: mmoore@ crain.com.