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Bridgestone's Karbowiak: Climate change to affect industry

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Doug Ruch, chairman of the ACS Rubber Division this year, presents a plaque to Christine Karbowiak, Bridgestone executive vice president who served as the group's keynote speaker.
Photo by RPN photo by Bruce Meyer Doug Ruch, chairman of the ACS Rubber Division this year, presents a plaque to Christine Karbowiak, Bridgestone executive vice president who served as the group's keynote speaker.

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Bridgestone Corp. long has been at the forefront of working on environmental issues, and a Bridgestone Americas Inc. executive helped hammer home that approach during the keynote speech of the ACS Rubber Division's International Elastomer Conference.

Christine Karbowiak, Bridgestone Americas executive vice president, chief administrative officer and chief risk officer, said that climate change may have an even more profound effect on the tire industry than any expansion or new product she could discuss.

An overwhelming majority of global scientists already say that the world's environment is on the edge of peril, she said in the address, given on the opening day of the Rubber Division's conference and expo in Nashville.

But the normal response of people is to respond only when a crisis is clear and indisputable. “It's human nature,” Karbowiak said. “You only respond when you're in a crisis. Not before.”

The problem in waiting, though, is that when change does come, the reaction will be far-reaching, and the impact on the industry difficult to predict.

“Some may think that climate change is not real, or that it's not man-induced, or that it's just a myth altogether,” she said.

“Most scientists agree that the climate is changing and that human activities are a major cause.”

She noted that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 50 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Even a number of prominent people on the political right have called for action, Karbowiak said. “In June, four former EPA administrators, all of them Republican, testified that the only uncertainty centers on how bad the changes will get and how soon.”

Rather than trying to convince those that don't believe, she said the question should be made in a different way: “How much are we willing to risk that climate change is not real and not man induced? If we wait too long, how will our lives and the lives of our grandchildren change? What kind of extreme measures are countries in the world likely to adopt to prevent the situation from worsening. And what is this going to mean for our industry?”

She said that the time to act is now because “we can't afford to guess wrong on this issue. I urge each of you to look at this issue as you would any other business risk.”

Global initiative

For Bridgestone, the initiative is not something forced upon regional business units from the parent company in Tokyo, Karbowiak said in an interview following the speech. “It's wonderful because it's a shared passion,” she said. “Our environmental group has been active for decades, and our parent company is also focused on the environment.”

Bridgestone has established a clear-cut environmental initiative it calls “One team, one planet.” It has committed to a 35 percent reduction by sales of carbon dioxide emissions. By 2050, the goal is a 50 percent reduction.

Bridgestone Americas has started an environmental initiative fund, and spent more than $20 million, with another $50 million committed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2020. To date, the firm has eliminated 438,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

It also is investigating other natural rubber alternatives, such as extracting rubber for tires from guayule. It just opened its research center in Arizona last month. The Russian dandelion also produces high quality rubber and may be a resource for the future, she said.

“We don't know whether these alternative materials will help us redefine the composition of the tire, but they definitely support our biodiversity goals and offer hope for the future,” she said in her speech.

Bridgestone Americas also has taken numerous steps to become a waste-free tire company. Three of its tire plants now send zero waste to landfills. At the other end of the business, the firm runs a program in its retail chain that ensures that for each tire it sells in the U.S., one spent tire is reused or repurposed.

“Our goal is to one day see a waste-free tire industry,” Karbowiak said. “We're proud of our initiatives, but we know there is more that we can do and that those in our industry can do while still satisfying customer demands, making a profit and paying fair wages to our people.”

Looking at "smart regulations'

The first step is to put environmental decisions on par with decisions made when designing and producing tires and other products.

Those in the industry should work together where legally able to combat climate change, she said. One way is in the area of governmental regulations. “I understand many people oppose regulations in our industry. I'm not much of a fan of either. But I do believe we need smart regulations.”

She defines that as policies that bring the needed changes while allowing the industry to meet customer demands and maintain a thriving industry.

The tire industry needs to not only participate in the process, but lead it, she said. “I think part of the concern we share as an organization is if you wait too long then there will be an overreaction,” she said. “First of all, you won't be able to influence the situation because it will be reactionary. If you do this in a thoughtful way, if you plan for it, you can really make a better set of regulations.”

Bridgestone is working with the Rubber Manufacturers Association on labeling for rolling resistance standards, as well as for wet traction and durability. Other countries are taking action, so the U.S. must act so it doesn't become the dumping ground for all the high rolling resistance tires that can't be sold in other nations.

The European Union already has established similar regulations, and dozens of other countries are following the EU blueprint. “We should work together to address the impact spent tires have on the environment,” Karbowiak said. “This is not a company issue. It is an industry issue.”

The bottom line is that those in the tire industry face a shared risk. “No one can say with sufficient certainty that the risk is so low or so remote that it is inconsequential and should be ignored,” she said.

“To survive and thrive for the next 100 years, our company and our industry must act decisively and deliberately. We must seize every opportunity to drive positive change through business decisions, through product innovations, proactive environmental policies, and through smart regulations. Together ... we can make a difference.”