Really, when's the last time a development occurred in the rubber industry that called for someone to shout, ``Eureka!''?
Marketing operatives will tell you it happens frequently, with their brand-new, fabulous products. But that's marketing.
In reality, things don't happen that way. Science builds upon science. Small innovations pile on small innovations. In a mature business, you make gains incrementally, not suddenly, but if you look back over time, you find things have come a long way.
So it is with the problem of scrap tires.
Since the Dawn of the Pneumatic Tire, the prescribed way to get rid of a used one was to chuck it in the woods, a ditch, a lake or anywhere it was out of sight, out of mind. Huge piles of waste tires sprouted up throughout the country.
That changed in the 1980s when some spectacular scrap tire fires caught the attention of the public, legislators and a panic-stricken tire industry, which feared (rightfully so) it could end up paying the bill to properly dispose of tires.
About 1 billion waste tires were stockpiled in the U.S. in the early 1990s, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association.
Here's where lots of little things combined to address a big problem.
You can't eliminate 1 billion tires just by tossing them into a cement kiln as fuel, or using them for civil engineering projects. Both have their merits, both have problems.
``Not in my backyard'' syndrome limits burning in cement kilns, and not all states are amenable to using tires in civil engineering.
Turning used tires into tire-derived fuel is an old and fairly well-accepted method to get rid of waste tires. Michael Blumenthal, the RMA's scrap tire expert, noted at the recent Clemson University Tire Industry Conference that today's runaway fuel prices make TDF pretty attractive. ``TDF was once considered a low-end market, but now it's high end,'' he said.
Additionally, there are lots of markets today for ground rubber that didn't exist a decade or so ago. True, they aren't huge, high volume products, but generally they are growing.
The cumulative effect of these various approaches to scrap tire abatement is that major gains have been achieved. A problem not completely solved, but under control.
Blumenthal said about 275 million scrap tires remain stockpiled in the U.S., a marked improvement from the past. Since more than 320 million new tires were sold in this country last year, there's still a way to go before one tire is recycled for every new one created.
Little by little, though, we're getting there.
Noga is editor of Rubber & Plastics News. His e-mail address is [email protected]