HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C.—Tire recycling is a well-established industry by now, but challenges and pitfalls remain in finding productive end-uses for scrap tires.
"In an ideal world, there would be no tradeoffs," John Sheerin, director, end-of-life tire programs for the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association (USTMA), said.
But the very nature of tires, with the contradictory demands of recyclability versus performance, makes tradeoffs necessary, Mr. Sheerin told his audience at the 35th Clemson University Global Tire Industry Conference held recently at Hilton Head.
Issued for the first time last year, the USTMA's Sustainability Report lists as a guiding principle the goal that all scrap tires enter sustainable end-of-life markets, Mr. Sheerin said.
As of 2017, 81.4 percent of scrap tires found such markets, he said, but advances in tire technology present new problems for tire recyclers and perhaps even threaten the industry's continuation.
"Could there be a completely new paradigm for what a tire is?" Mr. Sheerin asked.
In the ideal circular economy, he said, a continuous flow of technology and materials creates perpetual value circles. While the tire industry is working its way toward that ideal, there won't be 100 percent efficiency in every loop, he said.
Furthermore, what constitutes a tire may well change.
"The tire industry could be disrupted, and current materials could be replaced," he said, citing the change from books to Kindles and the transition from LPs to CDs to MP3s.
Tires are designed to optimize multiple parameters, some of them contradictory as to the properties and materials they require, he said.
They not only are complex and made of many mixed materials, but the fuel-economy mandates of vehicle makers force tire producers to make their products as light as possible, Mr. Sheerin said.
This complicates recycling, which mandates heavy, simple, easily separated and segregated materials, he said.
Different end-markets for scrap tires use different properties of tires and tire materials, and some offer benefits that others don't, according to Mr. Sheerin.
"Someone has described rubber mulch as a seven-year reprieve from the landfill," he said, "but crumb rubber synthetic turf can be reused."
Technological advances in tire design have solved many of the performance tradeoffs in tires, such as the use of silica in tread compounds that yield long tread life and enhanced wet traction, but what future technological advances will mean to tire recycling have yet to be seen, he said.
"Pneumatic tires will be distributed at least 10 to 15 more years, and the end of life happens five years after that," he said. "For the foreseeable future, we'll be generating hundreds of millions of pneumatic tires. But the decisions made in tire technology will affect recyclability."