Some in the tire industry assume the scrap tire problem is solved, or at least it is nearly solved. Unfortunately, the latest word from the Scrap Tire Management Council shows that assumption is as premature as believing AZT cures AIDS.
The three major markets for scrap tires-tire-derived fuel, crumb rubber and civil engineering-still are viable, said STMC Executive Director Michael H. Blumenthal in a recent speech. But all three have taken heavy hits recently.
Civil engineering markets were harmed worst, when fires in rubber-filled highway embankments prompted a vote of no confidence from the Federal Highway Administration. And although some state highway departments swear by crumb-rubber-modified asphalt, others swear at it. They and conventional asphalt producers ensured federal procurement mandates for rubberized asphalt never were implemented.
Even tire-derived fuel, the industry's great hope for scrap tire abatement, is being investigated for possible zinc emissions in pulp and paper boilers.
The STMC and others in the industry are taking steps to protect these markets. But the current controversy underscores the danger of relying on two or three solutions to a problem as complex as scrap tires.
There still are 709 million scrap tires out there, according to STMC estimates.
That stockpile holds enormous potential for disaster, as the March 13 tire fire in Philadelphia that closed an interstate highway demonstrated.
Public disasters erode public confidence, which erodes markets for scrap tires. The vicious circle forms with tragic ease.
The STMC already sponsors nationwide seminars on scrap tire management and fire prevention. But more is needed. Work must continue on ways to recycle scrap into new rubber products.
Methods such as the devulcanization process patented by STI-K Polymers Inc. show promise, but innovation cannot stop there. Auto makers increasingly insist on a total post-consumer scrap recycling program from their tire and parts suppliers, and the public will demand no less.
Those who believe the scrap tire problem is solved are ignoring the facts. There's still a long way to go, and, as the recent troubles show, it won't be easy.