If Richard J. Farris had complete control to solve the rubber recycling problem, his answer would be simple: make the big companies that produce the tires and other rubber products in the first place handle it.
"At the end of product life, they´d take the tires back and figure out something to do with them," said Farris, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst´s Department of Polymer Science and Research. "They would figure out something good to do with them, or they´d figure out a way to properly dispose of them."
As Farris sees it, if anybody can solve the problem of scrap tires and recycling, it´s the giants of the rubber industry. "They´d figure out a solution, just like they did with synthetic rubber in World War II," he said. "The way it is now is insanity, stupidity. I´m being blunt and honest, but it´s scary."
Farris and his students are doing some research in rubber recycling, concentrating on work that is different than just blending regrind back into compounds-a process that he said dates as far back as Charles Goodyear. "People still do that a lot today, and the properties go to hell pretty fast when you start adding very much of that stuff," he said.
The problem with recycling rubber, he said, is that it won´t melt or dissolve. His work focuses on taking powder derived from rubber, putting it in a press and coming down on it hard mechanically. This squeezes the voids from the material, and after exposing it to high enough temperatures, it fuses together and ends up indistinguishable from the original material-but with 60-70 percent of the properties.
"If you start off with a really good rubber, you end up with 60-70 percent of the good properties," Farris said. "If you start off with something that´s really terrible, you end up with 60-70 percent of the terrible properties."
It´s hard to get companies involved in a process such as this because it requires special equipment, he said. And people he´s come across at rubber recycling meetings often aren´t that knowledgeable about rubber.
"They´re working off small grants, trying to find crazy uses for scrap tires, and they know nothing about rubber," Farris said. "It´s absolutely insane some of the things people are doing. I think this will come back to haunt us."
For example, he told of one company that is putting ground up rubber in cattle food. "Rubber´s got everything but the kitchen sink in it," Farris said. "You start feeding this to cows, it´s going to be in their system for some period of time. It can get in the milk supply, the food supply. I find that scary. I think they´re getting rid of one problem and potentially creating a lot more."
Which gets back to his theory of who should tackle the rubber recycling problem. "Most tires now are burned for fuel, but under very high subsidies," he said. "I think that´s bad. I think the people who make this stuff ought to handle it. Nobody knows more about rubber than the rubber companies."