Same Tired Story
Entrepreneurs have come and gone over
the past two decades with failed tire recycling methods and theories. The
raw material—scrap tires—is still in abundance waiting for new efforts
in this recycling segment.
By Brian Taylor
Are scrap tires a waste disposal problem
or a recycling opportunity? Most recyclers hope the answer to that question
is “both.” They can’t deny the disposal problem exists, but they are hopeful
that there is still an opportunity for the private sector to garner profits
from the abundance of scrap tires produced by an automobile-dependent society.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, grants
have been funneled from the federal government to and through states to
fund tire disposal, recycling and reuse projects. Thus far, no “magic bullet”
has been found that offers an end market for scrap tires that is so attractive
that discarded tires can be considered a desirable commodity. But a number
of smaller end markets are being developed, yielding the hope that a cumulative
effect could be building that would make the tire disposal problem a thing
of the past.
Not long ago, tire-derived fuel (TDF)
was considered the most promising end market for scrap tires—and it still
may be. But market conditions have not favored TDF becoming an instantly
competitive force within the energy market.
This decade has seen oil-producing
nations ship petroleum in record amounts at a very favorable price for
energy-consuming nations. Similarly, overcapacity is a word often used
to describe the amount of energy available from America’s electrical power
plants. “For the last ten years, there hasn’t been a need for most companies
to explore alternative fuels,” says Robert H. Davis, president and CEO
of Greenman Technologies Inc., Lynnfield, Mass.
But in the regulated utility market,
the price paid for electricity has varied widely from state-to-state and
region-to-region. This created the opportunity within some states—sometimes
aided by subsidies—for TDF to gain a foothold at some power plants and
a few manufacturing facilities.
“The three largest consumers of TDF
are utilities, cement kilns and paper mills,” says Greenman’s Davis, whose
company has been attempting to consolidate the tire shredding and TDF production
industries in what it considers to be key regions of the country.
“This industry is very ripe for consolidation
and growth—someone to professionalize the industry,” says Davis, who was
formerly a manager in BFI’s recycling division. When he was with BFI—at
a time when its recycling division was a $700 million part of the company—Davis
says he “thought tires could add another $100 million” to its revenues.
He left BFI in 1997 when the company
“had tire operations that were successful there, but BFI was not going
to pursue them,” says Davis. He agreed to take over the reins at Greenman
and shifted the company’s focus away from experimental end markets (such
as an injection molding process using a plastic/scrap tire blend) to the
making of crumb rubber, primarily for TDF end markets.
The company acquired BFI’s tire recycling
facilities, then two facilities it bought from Republic Industries, and
it has purchased additional independent tire shredding operations.
Davis acknowledges that a phasing out
of subsidies in California for tire-derived fuel use has hurt the end market
for TDF. “But about 115 and 135 million tires a year are still used there;
it’s still the lion’s share,” he remarks.
Greenman’s strategy has been to stay
close to that market. “The appetite [for TDF] is better in the southeastern
United States,” says Davis, whose company operates tire recycling plants
in Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina. Additionally, the company has
three facilities in Minnesota.
In the South, Greenman ships TDF to
facilities operated by such customers as Inland Paper, Mead Paper, Blue
Circle Cement and the Tennessee Valley Authority. While TDF may be an alternative
fuel, Davis says that does not make it an inferior fuel source.
“There are two-and-a-half to three
gallons of petroleum in each tire,” says Davis. “It can burn cleaner than
coal if it’s processed right,” he remarks. Davis notes that there are steps
that have to be taken by TDF users. “They do need feed or metering equipment
added to the boilers,” he says. “They need to comfort themselves to make
sure it can be burned clean and meet clean air guidelines.”
Barring dramatic shifts in the market,
TDF will remain the largest market for scrap tires for some time to come.
A summary of scrap tire markets presented by Michael Blumenthal of the
Scrap Tire Management Council, Washington, shows that TDF applications
consumed more than ten times as many scrap tires as any other single market.
“There are sometimes comments heard
that scrap tires have much more valuable uses than to be used as fuel or
in some civil engineering applications,” Blumenthal noted in a presentation
to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. “However, if the goal
is to find sound markets for all scrap tires, the reality is that we will
need all markets, including fuel and civil engineering. There are more
than enough tires to go around for ground rubber or for any other economically
viable market,” he added.
Specifically, the U.S. produces 3.3
million metric tons of scrap tires each year, which could theoretically
be ground into 2.3 million metric tons of crumb rubber. “The current market
for ground rubber in all applications is about 108 million kilograms, or
about 5% of the total potential volume,” Blumenthal stated. “In order for
the ground rubber markets to consume all of the potential scrap tire-derived
ground rubber, the markets would have to increase more than 20 times.”
Although tire-derived fuel remains
the largest market for scrap tires, it is far from the only one.
Both tire recyclers and manufacturers
continue to seek end markets for the rubber, steel, fiber material or mixed
material product that results from ground and shredded tires. Some civil
engineering applications have also been found that employ whole tires,
often after they are baled or compressed.
Rumber Materials Inc. (RMI), Austin,
Texas, is one company that is finding markets for crumb rubber made from
scrap tires. According to J’Lynn Hare, general manager of RMI’s Munster,
Texas, plant, the company is consuming 650 tons of scrap tires per year.
This year, the company will mix that amount of crumb rubber with 450 tons
of scrap plastic to make Rumber Composite, a granular product that can
be used to make polymer products “stronger, much more impact-resistant
and longer-lasting,” according to RMI.
“Tests showed that by using Rumber
composite, our buckets were more resistant, especially in cold weather,
as far as cracking, pliability and durability goes,” says David Bowell,
president of Miller Manufacturing, a St. Paul, Minn., maker of injection-molded
Other customers RMI has found for its
product include makers of highway signs, livestock feeders, plastic pallets,
trailer bed floors, and dumpster and garbage pail lids. “The Rumber composite
can act as an impact modifier for a myriad of polymer products,” says Harold
Fischer, president and CEO of RMI.
The company has recently completed
a 10,000 sq. ft. expansion of its plant, according to Hare. She feels many
more uses for the composite will be found. “We’ve just now seen the tip
of the iceberg,” says Hare. “There are so many places and so many uses
that we haven’t thought of.”
One end use for scrap tires that has
been thought of—and occasionally put into place—is within a paving material
mixture. While “rubberized asphalt” has demonstrated itself as a usable
material, at least as far as its advocates are concerned, it faces competition
from a number of other recyclable commodities that are trying to find their
way into paving mixtures.
Foremost is recycled asphalt and concrete
itself, which is more commonly used as road base or in off-highway applications.
But glass cullet producers have also pushed for the use of “glassphalt,”
and newer mixtures have been made using ground ceramics and even ground
plastic computer components diverted from the waste stream.
Despite the competitive aggregates/paving
market, rubber recyclers are still concentrating on rubber asphalt as a
potential market. The Tire and Rubber Recycling Advisory Council (TRAAC)
of the International Tire and Rubber Association (ITRA), Louisville, Ky.,
is holding a workshop at its annual meeting to address the topic. The ITRA
convention is taking place in Nashville, from June 9 to June 12.
“A Road Map for Introducing Asphalt
Rubber in Your State,” will include a tour of a section of road in Tennessee
that was paved with rubberized asphalt. Arizona has been the state at the
forefront of using rubberized asphalt, while Tennessee and Texas have been
among the states to recently solicit and accept bids from contractors using
“Last fiscal year we spent $18.4 million
on products containing crumb rubber,” says Rebecca Davio, recycling coordinator
for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). “The majority of that
went to rubberized crack sealer and chip seals, or seal coats,” she notes.
“We also are using some rubberized asphalt, and a recent project near Odessa,
Texas appears to be successful.”
Davio believes there is a good chance
the use of rubberized asphalt could spread beyond the project in the Odessa
TxDOT region of the state. “My guess is that it probably will spread,”
she says. “Every district and every project has to be looked at to see
if it has the right conditions that would make the best use of this material.
The good experience, though, should certainly help them want to consider.
There are a couple of projects going up for bid in the Odessa region and
in the Abilene area”
For state governments, the incentive
is certainly there to encourage end markets for scrap tires. “Tires provide
such an abundant stream of material,” says Davio.
Blumenthal says bluntly, “The United
States faces a major challenge in dealing with scrap tires.” In his remarks
to ISRI, he noted that the U.S. “generates approximately 273 million scrap
tires” each year, a number that increases annually. To add to the problem,
tire stockpiles found throughout the U.S. could contain as many as 850
million scrap tires.
In addition to rubberized asphalt,
states have been experimenting with other ways to use scrap tires in civil
engineering applications. The Northwest Arkansas Regional Solid Waste Management
District, Harrison, Ark., has been using whole or baled tires in several
different ways, according to program director Bill Lord. Lord also tracks
projects taking place in other states using scrap tires. Among those projects
A market for crumb rubber that is now
established but may face limits is in the landscaping market. Under such
brand names as Crown III and Rebound, mixtures that use crumb rubber are
being applied as top dressing for golf courses and athletic fields or as
a soil amendment.
Erosion control along a river bank and
lake shore in New Mexico. More than 2,500 bales of tires were wrapped in
wire and then encapsulated in cement along the Pecos River and the shore
of Lake Carlsbad in New Mexico.
Land reclamation in low lying areas in
Louisiana and Alabama as well as in old pit mines in Arkansas.
Road buttresses to prevent trucks from
driving into a deep pit mine in Arkansas.
Animal fencing for a corral.
Firing range construction.
But while the products have been well
received, the conclusion seems to be that the total market for such products
is not large enough to put more than a small dent in the oversupply of
PIONEERING ON THE PROCESSING FRONT
The difficulty and high cost of effectively
separating the different materials found in tires—rubber, steel and fiberglass—has
been cited as the primary hurdle to creating a demand-driven market for
the scrap commodities found within tires. Steel belting that has too much
rubber or fiberglass attached, for instance, is not desirable for steel
mills melting scrap.
Can advances in the processing of scrap
tires change that equation? There are still researchers and entrepreneurs
willing to find an answer to that question.
Terence C. Byrne, chairman and CEO
of Tire Corp., Montreal, believes there are serious processing advances
to be made, and that his company has made a giant step forward.
“Others have taken existing size reduction
equipment and adapted it to tires,” says Byrne. “When we took a look at
what results from those, the product is just not 100% clean. There is a
lot of commingling, whether you reduce to powder or whatever,” he adds.
“We felt we had to design a system
that would deal directly with a tire,” Byrne continues. “We realized we
had to separate the sidewalls from the treads. They contain different types
of rubber, different mixes of materials, they can be different colors.”
Byrne says markets exist for everything
produced by the Tirex process. “The fiber is in string form. Certain molding
companies use it to reinforce rubber or for large O-rings. Plastic lumber
makers are using it, and paying about 25 cents per pound (U.S.) for it.”
The steel is clean enough to be purchased by scrap dealers.
For crumb rubber produced at Tirex’s
Montreal plant, “we’re getting 10 to 15 cents per pound for 10 to 20 mesh,
and 15 to 20 cents for 20 to 30 mesh,” says Byrne. “Depending on the price,
we can move everything we make,” he adds.
As is the case in most of North America,
procuring feedstock has not been a problem for Tirex. “All tires are provided
by RecyQuebec,” says Bryne. “When you recycle to crumb rubber, they provide
Byrne says, though, that he is setting
up the company as one that can operate in a market without those subsidies.
“You’ve got to be able to compete without the subsidies.”
Part of that plan for Tirex involves
selling the company’s patented TCS-1 plants to other tire recyclers. Byrne
says he has 14 contracts for plants to be built over the next four years.
The buyers “sought us out—we really have done almost no sales effort at
all.” He says the response is encouraging, especially since Tirex “put
$8 million into the development of this system.”
EnTire Recycling, Nebraska City, Neb.,
is trying to secure processing success through high volume as well as by
producing high-quality end products. The plant is capable of processing
two million tires annually. The company uses a system designed and made
by Shred-Tech, Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. Further cryogenic processing
produces a crumb product that EnTire is currently selling for 10 to 19
cents per pound.
HOPE, BUT NOT WILD OPTIMISM
Scrap tires are still considered a
disposal problem far more than they are a marketable commodity.
And while the hope of finding a breakthrough
processing solution is now regarded as wishful thinking for alchemists
by many in the industry, some gains have been made. Perhaps the acknowledgement
that turning scrap tires from garbage to gold was too tough of a target
has left the research in the hands of people willing to take smaller steps
toward solving the scrap tire dilemma.
Those involved in this research remain
hopeful that the tide can be turned, and the era of scrap tires as a public
nuisance can draw to a close.
“Right now a vast majority of tires
are being utilized either in feedstock or as fuel,” says Byrne. “As the
feedstock becomes valuable, you’ll see a shift in recycling away from chips
and toward the crumb market. I think in a number of years, when you are
able to produce in volume a good product, a lot of the subsidies will go
away, and scrap tires will have a value. I think that’s even within the
next ten years,” he states. RT