Editor's Note: Rubber & Plastics News will celebrate its 50th Anniversary with a special issue Aug. 9. Leading up to that, we will be publishing a number of columns online by current and former staff members reflecting on their time with the publication.
When I consider my nearly 43 years at Rubber & Plastics News, my overall impression is one of continual evolution.
The tire and rubber industries responded to challenges posed by government, the public and the environment to make better, more durable, more technologically advanced products using new materials and less wasteful, less polluting manufacturing methods.
However, industry executives didn't exactly welcome change, at least at the beginning of my RPN tenure. I still remember the legal battles the tire companies—with Uniroyal the sole exception—fought in the late 1970s with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over Uniform Tire Quality Grading, a government edict now about as controversial as tire gauges.
This wasn't the first battle the industry had with government, nor was it or will it be the last. But what beguiled me about tire makers' response to various challenges was how they changed some of their attitudes over time.
When I started reporting on the industry, it was accepted wisdom that the total content of recycled rubber in a new tire could never exceed 1 percent. That was before the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association (then the Rubber Manufacturers Association) began its scrap tire management program in 1990. In that year, the association issued a study showing that some 1 billion scrap tires were stockpiled across the U.S., and that only 11 percent of the scrap tires generated every year reached some sort of end-use.
By 2017, scrap tire stockpiles had fallen to 60 million, and the recycling rate for scrap tires had soared above 80 percent. The industry's staunch advocacy has led to many ways of gainfully reusing or recycling scrap tires, among which are technologies that increase the percentage of used rubber in new tires above 10 percent.
Just as public pressure and business realities motivated the industry to find ways to reuse rubber, climate change has spurred it to find new sources of rubber.
Guayule, a Southwestern desert shrub. has been explored on and off as a rubber source for more than a hundred years. The federal government funded guayule research projects in the 1940s and 1970s. In the past several years, Bridgestone has invested heavily in guayule commercialization, and earlier this year announced a new technology for increasing the plant's latex yield.
Taraxacum kok-saghyz, a dandelion native to some former Soviet republics, came to public attention later than guayule but shows equal promise as a source of rubber. Unlike guayule, Taraxacum grows well in temperate climates. Continental Tire, through its Taraxagum project, is investigating and promoting dandelion rubber as an ingredient in tires.
Not all of the industry's environmental solutions have found favor with environmentalists. Tire-derived fuel has many detractors, as does crumb rubber athletic turf, despite abundant evidence showing both to be safe.
Nevertheless, the industry's efforts so far to become greener and more sustainable have to be counted as a success. It's a very different industry, process-wise, from when I first started covering it. And a better one.
Miles Moore worked for both Rubber & Plastics News and sister publication Tire Business for nearly 43 years, mostly covering the Washington beat, before retiring in April 2020.