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Used wheel weights

Lead wheel weights remain in a state of flux. Currently in the United States, their use is banned in only six states, although other states have proposed bans. Part of the reason is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has asked for a voluntary shift away from lead. And it appears to be working, although slowly.

“We are seeing that the majority of the market is switching on its own,” says Greg Parker, marketing manager at Perfect Equipment Inc. He estimates that the North American market is roughly half non-lead.

“A large part of the market has already switched away from lead,” says Scott Flynn, director of sales at Plombco Inc. “All of the North American OE manufacturers, and all of the aftermarket national retailers use alternatives to lead.” (Plombco offers new Plasteel wheel weights.)

Flynn says that five years ago, the price of lead alternatives was substantially higher than lead. Today, the cost is close to even. In many cases, lead-free products are less expensive.

But not everyone in the wheel weight industry is convinced a voluntary switch over will completely take place.

“Unless the cost equation radically switches between lead and lead-free alternatives, it’s going to take legislation,” says Kevin Keefe, vice president of marketing at Hennessy Industries Inc. “At this point, legislation has ground to a halt at the state level. As an industry, we’re stuck where we never wanted to be.”

Keefe says that because the market now is about 50% lead, 50% lead-free, wheel weight manufacturers have a new cost structure to deal with. The current market requires them to tool one or two lead-free alternatives while maintaining lead wheel weight operations. That is starting to change.

“We made the change to non-lead last year as a statement to the industry,” says Daniel Molinari, product department manager at Wurth USA Inc. Molinari says consumers are making the switch to non-lead too, especially younger people. He also sees the switch taking place at repair facilities and with distributors and manufacturers.

Is lead harder to recycle?

“Because there are so many different (wheel weight) materials out in today’s market, it is becoming harder for shops to be able to separate their wheel weights into lead and non-lead containers for recycling return,” says Parker. “A lot of bullet casters will still buy used weights and sort them themselves, but some ‘lead only’ battery recyclers have claimed that they don’t want the mixed media.”

“Where there was only lead, now we have a mixture of metals making it harder for the recycling sites to manage,” says Molinari. “Battery recycling sites are becoming less responsive to receive wheel weights.”

Lead and steel have different melting points. If lead and steel weights are melted together, the lead melts first, and recyclers can skim the steel out of the remelt. “But zinc and lead have fairly similar melting points, so you can’t get the zinc out of the lead batch,” says Keefe. “The only thing you can do is add more lead to the batch to dilute it. That’s a problem for the battery manufacturers because zinc can’t be present in battery lead in any amount really more than 20 parts per million.”

However, Parker says the issue is not zinc versus lead or zinc versus steel. It is lead versus non-lead.

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“There just isn’t as much lead in the market any more as there used to be — plain and simple,” he says. “All OEMs are non-lead, most of your major, national tire retailers are non-lead, etc. So, today’s typical shop has five-gallon buckets of used wheel weights sitting by the balancer that are likely half as full of lead as they used to be, with the other half being a mix of steel, zinc, plastics and composite materials.”

Parker believes that it is important for the market to know that lead-only battery recyclers are not the only scrap wheel weight buyers in the market. “Many scrap dealers all over the country are happy to accept mixed-media returns and they do it daily,” says Parker. “These mixed media scrap dealers are able to separate the materials during the recycling process, unlike many lead-only recyclers. At Perfect Equipment, we offer a program to the market that allows for mixed returns at no out-of-pocket expenses. It’s hassle-free.”

“It’s fairly common to find local scrap haulers who are willing to buy (mixed media wheel weights) from you, but you lose traceability,” says Keefe.

“A lot of the industry is concerned about  having traceability from cradle to grave — or cradle to cradle as it tends to work in the wheel weight industry — because those weights come back, they get melted and they end up back in a product whether it’s a battery or a wheel weight.”

Perfect Equipment, Plombco Inc., Hennessy Industries and Wurth USA all offer wheel weight return programs and accept mixed media weights.

“We’ll be taking lead off vehicles for years and years and years,” says Keefe.

“We’re just now starting to see the impact of the lead-free conversions in the wheel weight returns. If it takes another five or 10 years for legislation to flip the switch on the rest of the country, we’ll be taking lead wheel weights off for another 13 to 15 years.”

“It would be a good idea to see (lead wheel weight recycling) through to the end,” says Molinari. “There is lead out there and it’s coming off. We need to ensure we capture what’s left and process it properly through the system.”   ■

Transitioning from lead? Here is TIA’s advice

In May 2013, the Tire Industry Association issued best management practices that included the group’s advice for the tire industry to transition away from lead wheel weights.

1. If you are currently purchasing lead wheel weights, contact your supplier to transition away from lead, replacing the wheel weights with non-lead material. The most common alternative material is steel, but other non-toxic alternatives are also being used, including high-density polymers in specialty applications, and aluminum and zinc alloys. Ask your wheel weight supplier if they have a program for recycling the old wheel weights.

2. You may also check with your automotive battery supplier or a local scrap metal recycler. Recycle used lead wheel weights in an environmentally responsible manner.

3. Designate a storage space for the used lead wheel weights. Store the lead in a labeled container that is capable of handling the excessive weight of lead.

4. Ensure that no lead weights leave the shop as trash or litter. Do not leave lead wheel weights on bay floors, parking lots or allow them to fall into floor drains or storm water drains.

5. Provide training to ensure that shop employees are conscientious about the need to treat lead wheel weights with special care. In addition, all employees who handle lead wheel weights should be instructed to wash their hands regularly for proper hygiene.

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