CLEVELAND—Rubberized asphalt is in an excellent position to be the next big growth area in the recycled rubber market, according to an industry expert at the International Tire Exhibition & Conference in Cleveland Sept. 21-23.
But another expert warned that an ill-advised federal law in the early 1990s has fostered resistance in some quarters to rubberized asphalt technology that lingers to this day and will take further work to dispel.
Jonathan Levy, director of state and local programs for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, and Michael Blumenthal, vice president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association, respectfully disagreed about rubberized asphalt's future in a symposium, “Recycling and Retreading Bring Value to the Tire Industry,” held at ITEC Sept. 22.
Agree to disagree
Levy and Blumenthal both said that tire-derived fuel remains by far the largest segment of the scrap tire recycling market.
But they agreed that a pending action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which would redefine facilities that burn TDF as solid waste incinerators, could spell disaster for that market. The added cost of compliance with the EPA's solid waste regulations, if the EPA makes the rule change final, will discourage cement kilns, paper mills and other industrial users from continuing to burn TDF, they said.
Rubberized asphalt has enormous potential to fill the gap TDF may leave, according to Levy.
“It creates an environmentally friendly alternative that benefits everyone,” the ISRI official said.
“Rubberized asphalt makes roads quieter, more durable and smoother, the last of which also adds to vehicle fuel economy, and in many cases it's cheaper than conventional asphalt.”
However, Blumenthal said many state highway and transportation officials still haven't forgotten the rubberized asphalt provisions of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficien- cy Act.
That legislation was passed by Congress in 1991.
ISTEA contained a provision that required state transportation agencies to use an incrementally growing annual amount of rubberized asphalt—starting at 5 percent and ending at 20 percent—as a prerequisite for continuing to receive federal highway funds.
“We supported asphalt rubber, but we never supported the mandate,” Blumenthal said.
“Not even advocates of rubberized asphalt thought they could ever fulfill the mandate to supply 20 percent of the paving material for all federally funded highway projects,” the RMA executive said.
In 1991, most rubberized asphalt technology still was patented, making it expensive to use, according to Blumenthal.
Also, the technology still had certain technical problems and was surrounded by controversy, he said. Several state pilot projects using rubberized asphalt turned out disastrously, mostly because state highway officials wouldn't consult experts of the material.
Finally, the Federal Highway Administration said it would not enforce the rubberized asphalt portion of ISTEA, and Congress repealed the provision in 1993.
Blumenthal said many of the state officials who were angered by ISTEA are still on the job, and they have long memories.
“I don't think rubberized asphalt will overtake TDF,” Blumenthal said.
The RMA official believes ground rubber in such applications as rubber mulch, playground surfacing and athletic fields seems to be the best chance for growth in the recycled rubber industry.
ISRI's Levy said he agrees rubberized asphalt faces something of an uphill challenge.
“There are still a lot of old-timers in state transportation departments who are resistant to the technology,” the official said.
But the lapse of rubberized asphalt patents plus higher prices for conventional asphalt have turned the tables, and rubberized asphalt now is the cheaper material, Levy said.
Additionally, states such as California, Arizona, Texas and Florida have a long and very successful history of using rubberized asphalt, he said.
“Our job is to talk more to state transportation departments, congressmen and local officials about the benefits of rubberized asphalt,” he said. The hiring of Doug Carlson, executive director of the Rubber Pavements Association, by Liberty Tire Recycling L.L.C. was a step in the right direction, he added.
As for the RMA, the tire manufacturing industry trade association sponsors a biennial joint conference with the RPA on rubberized asphalt, the next of which is scheduled for June 11, 2011, according to Blumenthal.
“We also are working with the FHWA to do technical services with them,” he said.
Most of Blumenthal's talk was an overview of the history of tire recycling, with a glimpse of its present and future.
It is important to tell people at every possible opportunity about the progress that has been made in rubber recycling, according to Blumenthal. “People still think we put 300 million tires in landfills every year,” he said.
From 1888—the year pneumatic tires were invented—until nearly a century later, there was little alternative to landfills, except for recycling efforts during World War II and the tires diverted to reclaim and retreading operations, according to Blumenthal.
By the 1980s the picture had started to change, because of environmental concerns over landfills, he said.
Minnesota was the first state to pass a scrap tire law, in 1985, banning landfills within the state. “But there were no markets for scrap tires, so in five years Minnesota had 10 million stockpiled tires,” Blumenthal said.
Meanwhile, paper mills in Washington and Oregon began using TDF in 1979, and a cement kiln in California became the first to burn tires in 1983, he said. TDF essentially would remain the only viable market for scrap tires until 1992, when tire shreds started being used in civil engineering applications. Mom-and-pop scrap tire operations popped up everywhere, and the first massive tire fires started making the news.
“Back then it was like the Wild West,” Blumenthal said. “All sorts of technologies were out there angling for attention, like pyrolysis and gasification.”
The situation prompted the RMA to found the Scrap Tire Management Council in 1990, Blumenthal said. Almost immediately the STMC was able to counter some misconceptions about scrap tires, he said; whereas the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 1991 that there were 2 billion to 3 billion scrap tires stockpiled in the U.S., the STMC proved in a 1994 study that the number was about 800 million.
Now, the stockpile number is closer to 100 million, and the percentage of annually generated scrap tires reaching end-use markets has grown from 11 percent in 1990 to 86 percent in 2009, Blumenthal said. The number of TDF users has grown from 5 to 95 during that time, although with industry consolidation the number of scrap tire processors has shrunk from 500 to 100.