Scrap tires abatement is one of the great success stories in tire industry history. The slow recovery from the Great Recession is threatening to put an unfortunate postscript on that narrative.
Let's go back in time to the days before the nation got serious about properly disposing of used tires.
Except for during World War II when collecting worn-out rubber was a national security issue, scrap tires typically ended up wherever they were thrown. The piles grew huge—one in California was so immense it seemed like it was about to swallow the state—and you could stumble upon used tires in fields, woods, rivers, lakes, anywhere people tossed them.
Recycling of scrap tires wasn't economically viable. End of discussion.
A spate of photographically impressive scrap tire pile fires, worries about mosquitoes breeding in used tires and spreading disease, and the growth of the environmental movement changed everything. No different than any manufacturing sector, the tire industry saw the end-of-product life as a non-issue—until bad publicity and the specter of government regulation spurred the business into action.
With the Rubber Manufacturers Association leading the way, the scrap tire stockpiles in the U.S. fell from an estimated 1 billion tires to 188 million in 2005, the latest available figures. Methods to recover the ingredients of a used tire finally made financial sense.
Now here's the problem.
The individual states have managed their own scrap tire abatement, with some oversight from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Essentially, fees attached to new tire sales pay for proper disposal of the used tires they replace. It's worked.
But the states, of course, have been hammered by the recession. A state government that has to maintain roads, schools, health care, welfare, public safety and all the other things most anti-tax fanatics ignore won't leave any stone unturned to find funds.
That pile of cash for scrap tire abatement is awfully inviting.
States throughout the country have been reallocating that money. According to the RMA's resident scrap tire expert, Michael Blumenthal, California is the only state with a large scrap tire fund intact.
Where's it heading, toward the bad old days?
Maybe we just need another huge scrap tire pile fire, with massive black smoke spewing skyward like a volcanic eruption, traveling high over several states, to get the attention of the government and the public.
That could be the future. Steal from scrap tire funds now, you may pay for it later.
Noga is the editor of Rubber & Plastics News.