For the past quarter of a century, Michael Blumenthal has been at the forefront of the scrap tire industry in the U.S. When he joined the Rubber Manufacturers Association to head its then-named Scrap Tire Management Council, things were a mess.
At the time, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that as many as 4 billion tires were stockpiled around the country. The tire piles, later determined to be closer to 1 billion, were both a health and safety hazard. The old tires were breeding grounds for mosquitoes and tire fires that lasted for weeks, attracting news crews and unwanted publicity.
Worse yet, if the industry didn't take action, the politicians would. On Blumenthal's first day on the job, he and others from the RMA went to Capitol Hill and met with one senator and three congressmen. And though the legislators really had no clue about the situation, their message was clear: Get something going in a hurry or we will.
So Blumenthal and the RMA created a plan to address the scrap tire issue. They had a blank canvas to work from because at the time, the entire market for scrap tires consisted of Oxford Energy, one cement kiln and some pulp and paper mills.
In 1990, just 11 percent of scrap tires had an end market; five years later the number grew to 55 percent, and it stands at 85 percent today. And now the tires go into many other uses than just tire-derived fuel. Rubber-modified asphalt, civil engineering projects, engineered rubber goods and other uses all chip in to make the scrap tire problem more manageable.
Not everything has been smooth sailing. A federal mandate in 1994 requiring states to use rubber-modified asphalt or lose federal funds was a bust. Processing of scrap tires had to come a long way to get usable materials, and the lure of tipping fees for scrap tire processors attracted many charlatans into the industry.
Overall, though, when Blumenthal retires from his RMA post July 11, he can look back on a career in which he truly helped turn an embarrassment into a success story.