AKRON—When you're the most visible players with the most visible product in the rubber game, people are going to watch what you do and follow your lead.
That's the burden carried by tire makers, who have the recognizable names, the television commercials, the large magazine advertisements, the catchy slogans. But generally these global corporations embrace the responsibilities thrust upon them because of the goods they provide and their resources, and environmental awareness and action are no exception.
Tire companies are multifaceted in their efforts to be green. They produce tires with better rolling resistance and thus emit less carbon dioxide into the air. They develop ways to recycle and reuse rubber. They reduce potentially toxic chemicals in their processes. They attain international standards—such as the ISO 14001 environmental management certification.
And they strive to create environments of education through green-related reports, Web sites and community programs.
The stakes are high. According to data supplied by Michelin, road transport accounts for 18 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, and tires account for about 24 percent of those road transport emissions and more than 4 percent overall.
“It's our responsibility to be environmentally conscious,” said Dave Chapman, director of global environmental engineering for Goodyear. “It's our role as a premium company with premium products and a leader in our industry. We want to have the environment in mind in everything we do.”
Japanese tire maker Yokohama Rubber Co. Ltd. has been a driver of green initiatives for many years, “long before it was an issue,” said Mark Chung, director of strategic marketing for the company's U.S. subsidiary, Yokohama Tire Corp. The Tokyo-based firm developed its first environment-friendly products—a pneumatic fender—back in 1958.
Since then, the company has worked to find the “best ways to produce tires with minimal pollution and waste,” Chung said. It's not a trendy stance for Yokohama, but rather a requirement of all companies in the transportation sector who use potentially harmful materials and processes, he said.
Yokohama has achieved “zero emissions” at its Japanese plants, obtained ISO 14001 certification for all its facilities—including its sole U.S. tire manufacturing site in Salem, Va., in 2007—cut greenhouse gas emissions at its plants by 8.2 percent in 2006 and introduced the “DNA” eco-friendly passenger tire line.
The most recent release from that product group, the DNA dB Super E-Spec, is composed of 80-percent renewable materials and manufactured from Yokohama's “Super Nano Power Rubber,” a compound that utilizes natural rubber and citrus oil.
The company also introduced “ZEN,” a new eco-brand for truck and bus tires, in 2007.
Goodyear has had environmentally responsible programs in place for a significant period of time as well, Chapman said. The company uses the best materials available from an environmental standpoint, he said, and believes an environmentally friendly tire will provide good fuel economy, a quiet ride and long life.
The tire maker looks at its goals on an annual basis, and has been working to meet an objective of “Zero-Zero-Zero,” referring to zero waste to landfills, zero solvent usage and zero noncompliance with environmental legal requirements, he said.
Of 58 global plants at Goodyear, 56—including all its North American and European sites—send no waste to landfills, and the remaining two should meet that requirement by year's end, Chapman said. The ongoing program to reduce solvents in manufacturing tires has made good progress over the past five years without reducing the quality of the products, he said.
And while the company isn't completely where it wants to be in terms of compliance, it is improving and will reach its “zero” goal eventually, he said.
“Respect for the environment” is one of Michelin's core values, and with the efforts it has made over the years to be energy-efficient as a tire maker, being green has become “part of our DNA,” said David Stafford, chief operating officer of Michelin Americas Research Co.
Michelin is wary of the types of materials that go into its products, making sure they comply with energy standards; is nearly 100-percent compliant at its production facilities with ISO 14001; is looking at renewable energy sources, particularly in Europe; and is working to reduce its waste stream and landfill use, Stafford said.
In examining the impact of tires in the environment, Michelin has found that 86 percent of energy consumption actually comes during the “use” phase, when the tire is actually being driven upon, he said.
That's why the company's goals for environmental progress over the next two decades include doubling tire wear life to reduce the amount of raw materials needed by half; reducing rolling resistance for passenger cars tires by 50 percent; and substantially cutting braking distance to enhance safety.
One example of a company product aimed at making an impact in North America is the Michelin X One tire, which is a single-wide tire replacing dual tires on commercial vehicles. The tire maker claims the product improves fuel economy by about 4 percent and saved in more than seven years an estimated 15 million gallons of fuel and 165,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
South Korea's Kumho Tire Co. Inc. is “carefully devoted to improving the world we live in” and takes preventative steps to eliminate negative environmental effects in its activities, products and services, a company spokesman said.
Some of those steps include minimizing and reusing wastewater; reducing waste and air pollutants; increasing energy efficiency and making active efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions; and considering environmental consequences first when developing materials and products, he said.
An example for Kumho is its use of high aromatic-free oil technology on its snow tires, because of the pollution caused by the vacuum-distilled crude oil.
Bridgestone Americas Holding Inc., the U.S. arm of Japanese tire maker Bridgestone Corp., also strives to be environmentally conscious and a leader in initiatives, a company spokeswoman said, utilizing a global theme of “One Team, One Planet.”
The company's programs include qualification of its North American tire and Diversified Products plants for the National Environmental Performance Track initiative, a federal recognition program for companies with outstanding environmental management practices; implementation of the ISO 14001 standard for all facilities; and eco-friendly alliances within its commercial roofing business to boost its energy-efficient product offerings.
A worthwhile effort
“Going green” isn't necessarily cheap, even if many environmental changes are tied directly or indirectly to saving time and money. Most tire makers, however, will tell you that doing things the right way is worth it as long as the customer is getting the products they want and need.
For example, the Bridgestone/Firestone tire plant in Warren County, Tenn., is using hydrogen fuel cells to power its automated material handling vehicles. The technology is environmentally friendly while allowing the operation to improve efficiency, reduce downtime and ultimately save money, the BFS spokeswoman said.
The bottom line is that good environmental performance is also good business, she said.
Chapman said Goodyear believes in doing the right things and doing them economically, but also that they are worth the costs. “Quality is our first concern, and we invest our resources in the right materials, equipment and processes so that we have a long-lasting product that has little to no impact on the environment,” he said.
“It goes back to being a leader in the tire industry. You're expected to set and be held to a higher standard. We try to be at the highest level in how we treat our employees, our suppliers, our customers and the environment.”
The company's fuel-efficient Fuel Max truck tire technology exemplifies Goodyear's efforts to jointly conserve energy and money. Introduced in the summer of 1996, the Fuel Max line was designed to deliver 4-percent improved truck fuel economy.
About a year later, the Environmental Protection Agency certified the Fuel Max technology for use on trucks participating in the SmartWay Transport Partnership, a collaborative initiative developed to reduce emissions from freight transport and improve fuel efficiency.
Each truck participating in the program can realize savings of up to 4,000 gallons of fuel per year, or more than $11,000 annually, Goodyear said.
Michelin's Stafford said it costs money to be green, but it is a choice the company wants to make and is an attribute customers are willing to pay for. The truck side of the business has realized for years there is a payback to being energy-efficient, and on the car tire side there is a continuing effort to meet carbon dioxide standards and increase consciousness at the consumer level, he said.
The company unveiled its green meters—real-time counters located in New York, Shanghai, Paris and Berlin—displaying the savings in fuel and carbon dioxide emissions via its production of environmental energy-saving tires worldwide over the past 15 years. At the time, Michelin said the 570 million green tires it had sold over that period reduced fuel consumption by 2.4 billion gallons and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 25 million tons.
Yokohama's Chung said that the company's “uncompromising performance” credo means that quality shouldn't be lost in any environmental initiative; rather, the two should work together.
“We don't want one part to shrink while the other grows,” he said. “We want both the environmental benefits and quality to grow. That's the best way to success.”
Kumho links its customers' needs and its drive to be an environmentally friendly company, the spokesman said.
The firm knows it can't exist without its customers' need for its products, he said, and it wants to be environmentally conscious at the same time. So Kumho respects its customers by meeting their needs and its neighbors by putting some of its profits back into the company to help improve the environment, the spokesman said.
Tire companies have done much to improve their operations up and down the production stream, but it's also outside of the plant setting that they've left their green mark.
Goodyear, for example, has developed and supported consumer awareness programs for proper tire inflation and fuel economy education, Chapman said.
At the beginning of 2008—as part of its “ecoMotion activities program—Yokohama announced its “Forever Forest” initiative, under which the company will create forested areas around its production sites. The trees—more than 500,000 covering 25 acres will be planted over the next decade—will absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the company said.
Bridgestone Americas has certified wildlife habitat areas surrounding three of its tire facilities as well. The company also is involved with several programs nationally and in its home state of Tennessee, including Keep America Beautiful; Team Green, an outdoor adventure club in Nashville; and Tennessee's Wildlife Resources Agency, to which it donated 10,000 acres of pristine wilderness as a preserved wildlife area.
The company's commitment to its “One Team, One Planet” theme has helped it earn the trust and pride of the communities it calls home, the spokeswoman said.
Kumho's Gok-Sung factory in South Korea has preserved the nearby Sum-Jin River and surrounding area—which is home to many wild animals and fish—via a “reverse osmosis” facility that recycles the plant's wastewater and monitors pollution levels. The water in the wastewater pond is clean enough that plant workers raise fish in it and deer come to drink from it, a spokesman said.
The Gok-Sung plant also operates facilities that reduce air pollutants and separates waste for recycling purposes.
Michelin last month announced it was investing $6.8 million in a three-year research and development project focused on improved fuel economy via reduced rolling resistance. Part of the funding is a $1.9 million research contract with Clemson University and the institution's International Center for Automotive Research.
Environmental R&D and education are among the areas a corporation like Michelin can have a great impact, Stafford said. The tire makers can't do it alone, he said, but need universities and government and the media and other partners to help make changes and get information out there.
Last fall, Yokohama also started an environmentally themed Web site called EcoTreadsetters. It isn't simply touting the company's efforts, but instead has ecological news, information on current environmental projects, blogs, tips and other features.
“It's not 100-percent Yokohama,” Chung said. “It offers some great things for people to think about and shows lots of ways they can help support the environment. It shows that green is good.”
Education efforts and tree plantings don't necessarily translate to more tires sold, but the tire makers' efforts show that, as stakeholders in a cleaner world, they are willing to use their resources and knowledge to benefit the environment, he said.
“It shows we care,” Chung said. “From a business perspective, we need to be profitable, but we're confident we can adapt quickly to new processes and materials that are environmentally friendly. We all contribute to the problem by traveling, and we're trying to offset that. And it's not a token effort. We'll continue to do what were doing.”