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Scrapping for 100 years

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Scrap tire disposal was a subject for discussion even before Modern Tire Dealer and its predecessor publications existed.

In fact the rubber reclamation industry in the U.S. is more than 100 years old and tire reclamation began as soon as the first ones wore out. 

But as tiremaking became more sophisticated with the introduction of synthetics and steel-belted radials, the task of processing and re-using scrap tires became more and more difficult. 

Until after World War II, most tires were simply hauled away to landfills or dumped in large scrap tire piles where at least two billion remain today. 

At first such piles were not even illegal, but disastrous fires and health hazards resulting from rats and mosquitoes that breed there have sparked efforts and legislation to eliminate them. 

But the problem is enormous and expensive and years of accumulated dirt and other contaminants make these tires difficult to process. 

A relatively few tires were ground up for re-use in other rubber materials such as mats, bumpers, gaskets, etc. 

But not only has such recycling become more and more difficult, there are now scores of polymers available often capable of producing similar materials that are less expensive and better than those made from reprocessed tires. 

As discarded tires filled landfills and tire piles grew, scrap tires became both an environmental and a political issue. 

An MTD article in 1968 asked the question “What’s to become of scrap tires?” 

It noted the problems large-volume tire dealers in major urban areas were having in disposing of their tires. 

Though most landfills still accepted tires, there was growing concern over the space they took up and their tendency to work their way to the surface after being buried. In those days low oil prices and generally unreliable shredding equipment made scrap tire processing an unprofitable proposition. 

And until many states and communities regulated collection and storage of scrap tires, many were dumped illegally making supplies of tires for processing unreliable. 

The first state to regulate scrap tire disposal was Minnesota which produced a comprehensive study and report — still a model for the industry — in 1985. 

The program provided for regulation of pickup and disposal, cleanup of scrap tire piles, funding for promising scrap tire processors and related activities. 

The program was financed by a tax on title transfers, one of the fairest and most efficient methods for collecting funds. 

Today, some 38 states collect fees to cover costs and subsidies for collecting and disposing of scrap tires. 

After a long series of articles in Modern Tire Dealer, the most common tire disposal methods were chronicled in a special MTD section called “Scrap Tire Solutions” in 1990. 

At that time more than 70% of all tires were still being dumped in landfills and other stockpiles. 

Among the solutions listed were tire shredding, reprocessing of ground rubber into other rubber products, use of crumb rubber in asphalt, use of tire chips as a fuel supplement for industrial boilers and burning tires to generate power. 

Increasing political pressure, subsidies for tire processors and improvements in machinery and technology encouraged more and more recyclers to enter the tire disposal business. 

But opposition of environmentalists, some government groups and special interests delayed the process for years. 

A major factor in accelerating scrap tire disposal was creation of the Scrap Tire Management Council (STMC) in 1991 by the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA). 

The STMC brought government and private tire recyclers together, gathered information on tire disposal methods and technology, provided accurate information on the problem and effectively helped to develop markets for scrap tires. 

One example of STMC enterprise was in helping to arrange for Bridgestone to make available free of charge licensing of a process for use of scrap tires in cement kilns. 

Since even the metal in tires is needed in the cement-making process, this is an ideal tire disposal use. 

Today, 26 cement kilns across the country are burning a total of 30 million scrap tires annually, about one-third of all those being processed, according to Michael Blumenthal, STMC executive director. 

Counting tires used as fuel for power plants, in pulp and paper mills and as fuel supplements in other industrial boilers, Blumenthal estimates about 80 million tires are burned annually for productive purposes. 

Blumenthal says additional cement kilns will soon be burning tires and a market is developing for tires as a clean fuel for use in the foundry industry. 

Even today, only 90 million scrap tires are being used in the U.S. Out of the 242 million being generated annually. 

Much of 10 million of these not being burned are reduced to crumbs for use in asphalt rubber. 

This market was expected to explode when use of asphalt rubber in increasing amounts was mandated for federally funded highway projects in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) enacted by Congress. 

But delays and a compromise proposal have greatly reduced this potential. 

Nevertheless, asphalt rubber has been taken off the experimental list and is being used increasingly in California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and west Texas, Blumenthal points out. 

A vast potential remains that could rapidly eat into scrap tire supplies if exploited. 

In addition, long-established companies such as Rouse Rubber Industries and Baker Rubber Inc. continue to shred tires to produce granular rubber that is recycled into other rubber products such as dock bumpers, washers, small parts for the automotive industry, etc. But this market shows little potential for growth unless the crumbs are used in asphalt paying. 

Processes such as pyrolysis in which tires are heated in a vacuum and carbon black, oil and gasses are extracted, have proven to be of marginal commercial value, at best. 

A small number of tires are also frozen with liquid hydrogen and shattered to produce crumbs or chips, but again markets are limited. 

Blumenthal now estimates it will be “at least 1998” and possibly the turn of the century before scrap tires in America are used up as fast as they are generated. 

By then, scrap tire re-use should be a profitable enterprise, although finds must be spent on enforcement of proper collection and storage of tires and, in some instances, prospecting for practical markets. 

The toughest part of the scrap tire problem will be disposal of the billions of tires remaining in piles across the country. 

These are far less desirable recycling products because they are dirty and very expensive to salvage. 

Most likely, Blumenthal and other experts believe, tax funds will be needed for the cleanup, possibly even under a federal program. 

Stones in the MTD files reveal that over the years, scrap tires have been an ever-worsening and a highly emotional problem. 

Especially in the early days the disposal industry was infiltrated by con men and snake oil salesmen and by people who made promises they couldn’t keep. 

This and the financial problems of early tire processors, plus interference by special interest groups and frequent government bungling at all levels, has delayed the scrap tire cleanup by many years. 

And opposition remains, especially among environmentalists who appear to ignore the technological advances that make tires an especially clean fuel and tests that show they are a non-hazardous waste that will not contaminate the soil. 

Growing opportunities for profit now seem to assure the scrap tire disposal problem will be a thing of the past before many more Modern Tire Dealer anniversaries pass. 

After all these years America is discovering those ugly, nearly indestructible scrap tires may be a valuable byproduct of the tire industry after all.

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