HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C.The U.S. scrap tire industry represents one of the great success stories in the history of recycling.
Yet, changing attitudes among state legislatures could create new problems for the industry, according to Mich-ael Blumenthal, president of consulting firm Marshay Inc. and now-retired former vice president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA), who spoke at the Clemson University Global Tire Industry Conference.
The earliest mention of tire recycling came in 1957, when the Forestry Service issued a booklet showing whole tires being placed as anchors on sloped terrains to prevent soil erosion, according to Mr. Blumenthal, noting that the funny thing is, that is still the high-tech choice in some parts of the world.
Recapping the scrap tire industry's roller coaster ride over the last 30 or so years, Mr. Blumenthal said the true impetus for tire recycling came in 1985, when Minnesota became the first state to pass a law regulating scrap tires. Oregon and Washington State followed the next year, and 48 states had scrap tire laws by 1990.
Waste Recovery Inc., the first company dedicated to scrap tire recycling, opened in 1979, he said. Oxford Energy Inc. and Emanuel Tire Inc. followed in the mid-1980s but today Emanuel Tire is the only company of the three still operating.
When he joined the RMA in 1990 as executive director of the Tire Industry Safety Council, Mr. Blumenthal recalled spending his first day on Capitol Hill. Three congressmen and a senator threatened to make tire manufacturers pay into a federal scrap tire fund. It would have cost manufacturers about $1 billion a year.
He said he was able to fight off this threat, but in 1991 scrap tire recycling suffered a tremendous blow from the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which contained a provision requiring state highway agencies to use an ever-increasing percentage of rubber-modified asphalt in federally funded road projects.
A lot of crumb rubber operations opened in anticipation of the asphalt rubber mandate, Mr. Blumenthal said, but state highway agencies resented the mandate and persuaded Congress to repeal it in 1993. Not a single pound of crumb rubber was used for asphalt. Eighty percent of the crumb rubber capacity in this country went out of business as a result.
It was a bloodbath.
Rubberized asphalt is still recovering from the damage created by ISTEA, according to Mr. Blumenthal. Nevertheless, scrap tire markets had their formative years in the 1990s, as state agencies worked with the tire industry in market development.
Tire-derived fuel (TDF) became the dominant market, and other markets such as ground rubber began to gain momentum, he said, though that path was fraught with serious problemssuch as the near-disaster created by the economics of whole tires going to fuel cement kilns. Yet by 2006 the scrap tire industry could boast a 90-percent utilization rate, he said, compared with 11 percent in 1990, and the expansion of new, higher-value end-use markets.
With new tire sales plummeting, the scrap tire market took a big hit in the downturn of 2007-2011, according to Mr. Blumenthal, as TDF use dropped by 40 percent, crumb rubber use fell by one-third and the demand for used tires doubled in two years.
Also aggravating the situation, he said, was the baling of U.S. scrap tires for shipment to Asia, which consumed 15 percent of scrap tire generation, making it all the more difficult for domestic recyclers to obtain the tires they needed.
From 2012 to the present, the scrap tire market has been a mixed bag, Mr. Blumenthal said. Baling of tires for Asia largely has abated, and TDF mostly has rebounded, though hurt by the permanent loss of some older cement kilns.
Still, bad publicity, especially on NBC News and in USA Today, about the allegedly negative health effects of ground rubber in artificial athletic turfthough the vast majority of the evidence shows no negative effectshas again dampened scrap tire usage, Mr. Blumenthal said, as has the number of states that are ending or cutting back their scrap tire programs and diverting scrap tire funds for other purposes. Nevertheless, end-use markets have returned to a 90-percent utilization rate.
Today, TDF shows signs of stagnating, and some statesespecially Connecticut and Vermontare considering Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation.
EPR is the concept that the manufacturer must have complete responsibility for the management of their materials, Mr. Blumenthal said. This would create a challenge for tire manufacturers.
In the last 30 years, the scrap tire marketplace has picked its winners and losers, he continued. The achievements of the tire industry in taking scrap tires from the most significant solid waste problem in the U.S.A. to where we are today is a major success story.
Given the gains made in 30 years, the industry has much to lose if scrap tires are again considered a problem waste, Mr. Blumenthal added.