Each year, the U.S. generates an estimated 250 million scrap tires, the vast majority of which are put to good use in one way or another.
But how do you classify tires as to the best way to reuse them?
Three longtime veterans of the scrap tire industry addressed that question at the 2007 Tire Recycling Business Summit, held in Rosemont, Ill., Sept. 16-18 and sponsored by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries´ Scrap Tire Chapter.
Every tire recycler, no matter his niche in the business, is going to receive tires that are less than desirable from any standpoint, said Troy Hess, vice president of Mahantango Enterprises Inc. in Liverpool, Pa., and president of the ISRI Scrap Tire Chapter.
"Where do scrap tires come from? From tire dealers, salvage yards, landfills and abandoned piles," Hess said. "The tires from dealers are the value-added tires. Those are the tires we all want. But what happens when the other tires show up?"
Tires from stockpiles may not look too bad at first glance, but there will always be a considerable amount of dirt scooped up with the tires, he said.
And dirt is only one of the contaminants that appear in scrap tire shipments, according to Hess. He showed slides that depicted a truly bewildering array of foreign objects in tire piles, including everything from car axles and brake drums to rubber ducks and toaster ovens.
"Even-literally-the kitchen sink," he said.
Tires for shredding
To minimize confusion, Mahantango has developed its own classification system to separate those tires which can be used for high-value-added applications, such as playground surfacing and asphalt rubber, from those that can only be used for septic systems or civil engineering and from burned tires that are no good for anything.
"In Pennsylvania, we can shred burned tires and send them to the landfill," Hess said. "People ask us, ´Why do you accept tires like that?´ Our answer is, ´What will happen to tires like that if we don´t take them?´ They´ll end up on a bank somewhere or in a river."
Mahantango is careful to separate passenger tires, radial truck tires, bias truck tires, and forestry and agricultural tires, Hess said.
Radial truck tires are value-added products that can be used to make molded products, brakes or new tires, he said. Because of their high nylon content, bias truck tires aren´t suitable for all-black tire materials but are fine for punch-out products such as loading dock bumpers.
Ag tires also have a lot of nylon and are reused mostly in civil engineering or drainage projects, according to Hess. But log-skidding tires have steel plates in their sidewalls, which makes them troublesome to recycle, he said.
ISRI has developed classifications for processed recycled rubber and should do the same for front-end scrap tire material as yet another advance in quality control, Hess said.
Still miles left
Choosing tires from scrap piles that can go back on a vehicle as used tires or retreadable casings is a slightly different art from dividing them up for shredding, said Bill Cook, president of Wholesale Tire Co. in Clifton Forge, Va.
Wholesale Tire has five classifications for used tires, according to Cook: no tread, low tread, medium tread, high tread and repairable. Truck tires are simpler to classify than passenger tires because truck tire manufacturers provide specifications for repair and reuse. But in all cases a used tire seller needs some expertise, he said.
"It takes someone who´s been around a while to know what caused the tire to fail and whether it should be repaired or used for (tire derived fuel)," said Cook, himself a 42-year veteran of the used tire industry, beginning with the business his father started.
All too often, however, roadworthy used tires end up on a playground or holding up a highway embankment, according to Cook.
"A number of tires are thrown away or ground up that don´t have anything more than a nail hole," he said. "Some people say they´re worth more ground up than put back on the road, but I don´t agree."
Complicating the issue is that more and more retreaders are getting choosy as to the age of the casings they retread, according to Cook. The Department of Transportation codes on the sidewalls tell the week and year the tires were made, and most retreaders today won´t touch a casing that was made earlier than 2002, he said.
Generally, Cook said, he doesn´t look at the date code but at how weathered the rubber is. "If it´s fresh and clean, I think it can be reused," he said.
Those who would sell used tires in countries outside those covered by the North American Free Trade Agreement need to know those markets thoroughly before they start, according to Anne Evans, CEO of EER Ltd. in Hebron, Conn.
For one thing, many countries in Africa, Asia and South America refuse to accept used tires at all. "Those countries don´t want people bringing in their garbage," she said.
There are no restrictions in selling used tires to Europe or Central America, or to Oceania as long as the tires are fumigated, Evans said. But these in turn are different markets from the NAFTA countries.
"Selling used tires to Canada is like selling them in the U.S.," she said. "Mexico has its own issues with selling used tires because it doesn´t want to be a dumping ground for the U.S."
Successful used tire exporters tend to be near seaports-particularly in Miami, Los Angeles, the greater New York area and the Baltimore/Washington area-because the cost of freight is so high that it´s nearly impossible to make a profit from an inland city. "Often the freight costs will be higher than the price of the tires going to the customer," Evans said.
Successful exporters also tend to be successful importers, though this is changing somewhat because the U.S. dollar is at an all-time low. "Even Chinese tires are getting expensive," she said.
Furthermore, the cull rate of U.S. used tires for export is low — 15 percent or less — because U.S. tire sizes don´t usually correlate to those in Europe or elsewhere, according to Evans. Speed ratings, often ignored in the U.S., are all-important in foreign markets, as are the appropriate sidewall markings for the countries you intend to sell to.
Knowing the languages and customs of the countries you want to export to is crucial. "Because the biggest markets for U.S. used tire importers are Central America and the Caribbean, you really need to know Spanish," Evans said.
Finding new customers for used tires is harder than it used to be, especially because the trade shows have changed, according to Evans. "The ARA/ITRA shows were fabulous, but they´re gone," she said. "One hundred sixty-five thousand people go to the SEMA show; you´re not going to find your customers there."
Finally, Evans said, it´s necessary to know not only foreign laws governing used tires but also U.S. ones-such as the U.S. law that makes the sale of any U.S. military tire to anyone outside the U.S. punishable by five years´ imprisonment and a $1 million fine.
Fortunately, there are many private organizations and government agencies that can help potential used tire exporters, according to Evans. She recommended not only ISRI but also the Tire Industry Association, the Tire Retread Information Bureau and the Commerce Department.