HILTON HEAD, S.C.—The U.S. scrap tire industry represents one of the great success stories in the history of recycling, according to a speaker at the 31st annual Clemson University Global Tire Industry Conference, held recently in Hilton Head.
Yet changing attitudes among state legislatures could create new problems for the industry, said Michael Blumenthal, president of consulting firm Marshay Inc. and former vice president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association.
Also at the Clemson conference, James D. Middleton—partner and senior vice president of Oklahoma City-based SR Holdings L.L.C.—said his company's pending tire pyrolysis plant in Texas could be a game-changer for the tire recycling industry.
The earliest mention of tire recycling came in 1957, when the Forestry Service issued a booklet showing whole tires being placed as an anchor on sloped terrain to prevent soil erosion, according to Blumenthal.
“The funny thing is, that is still the high-tech choice in some parts of the world,” he said.
The true impetus for tire recycling came in 1985, when Minnesota became the first state to pass a law regulating scrap tires. Oregon and Washington State followed the next year. According to Blumenthal 48 states had scrap tire laws by 1990.
Waste Recovery Inc., the first company dedicated to scrap tire recycling, opened in 1979, he said. Oxford Energy Inc. and Emanuel Tire Inc. followed in the mid-1980s. Emanuel Tire is the only company of the three still operating, he said.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were perilous years in the history of scrap tires, according to Blumenthal. With the Environmental Protection Agency's estimate of 3 billion scrap tires in the U.S. (the actual number, Blumenthal said, was less than one-third that) and news of tire fires front and center in the media, legislators were out for blood.
Blumenthal joined the RMA in 1990, as executive director of the Tire Industry Safety Council.
“My first day at the RMA, I attended a meeting on Capitol Hill,” he said. “Three congressmen and a senator threatened to make tire manufacturers pay into a federal scrap tire fund. It would have cost manufacturers about $1 billion a year.”
Blumenthal fought off this threat, but in 1991 scrap tire recycling suffered a tremendous blow from the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.
ISTEA contained a provision requiring state highway agencies to use an ever-increasing percentage of rubber-modified asphalt in federally funded road projects.
A lot of crumb rubber operations opened in anticipation of the asphalt rubber mandate, according to Blumenthal. But state highway agencies resented the mandate and persuaded Congress to repeal it in 1993.
“Not a single pound of crumb rubber was used for asphalt,” he said. “Eighty percent of the crumb rubber capacity in this country went out of business as a result. It was a bloodbath.”
Rubberized asphalt still has yet to fully recover from the damage created by ISTEA, according to Blumenthal. Nevertheless, scrap tire markets had their formative years in the 1990s, as state agencies worked with the tire industry in market development.
Tire-derived fuel became the dominant market, and other markets such as ground rubber began to gain momentum, according to Blumenthal.
There were serious problems along the way, such as the near-disaster created by the economics of whole tires going to fuel cement kilns, he said. But by 2006 the scrap tire industry could boast a 90-percent utilization rate, compared with 11 percent in 1990, and new, higher-value end-use markets were expanding.
The scrap tire market took another big hit in the downturn of 2007-11, according to Blumenthal. New tire sales plummeted, TDF use dropped by 40 percent, crumb rubber use fell by one-third and the demand for used tires doubled in two years, he said.
Furthermore, the baling of U.S. scrap tires for shipment to Asia consumed 15 percent of scrap tire generation, making it all the more difficult for domestic recyclers to obtain the tires they needed, Blumenthal said.
From 2012 to the present, the scrap tire market has been a mixed bag, according to Blumenthal. Baling of tires for Asia has largely abated, and TDF has mostly rebounded, though hurt by the permanent loss of some older cement kilns, he said.
There has been bad publicity, especially on NBC News and in USA Today, about the allegedly negative health effects of ground rubber in artificial athletic turf, though the vast majority of the evidence shows no negative effects at all, Blumenthal said.
Also, states are ending or cutting back scrap tire programs and diverting scrap tire funds for other purposes, he said. Nevertheless, end-use markets have returned to a 90-percent utilization rate, he said.
Today, TDF shows signs of stagnating, and some states—especially Connecticut and Vermont—are considering Extended Producer Responsibility legislation.
“EPR is the concept that the manufacturer must have complete responsibility for the management of their materials,” Blumenthal said. “This would create a challenge for tire manufacturers.”
In the last 30 years, the scrap tire marketplace has picked its winners and losers, he said.
“The achievements of the tire industry in taking scrap tires from the most significant solid waste problem in the U.S. to where we are today is a major success story,” he said. “Given the gains made in 30 years, the industry has much to lose if scrap tires are again considered a problem waste.”
In his speech, Blumenthal said that pyrolysis showed signs of viability before the sharp drop in oil prices. Middleton, however, said SR 20's Texas pyrolysis plant can, and will, be successful now.
An SR 20 spokesman said the company broke ground in March 2015 on its pyrolysis plant in Alvarado, Texas, just south of Fort Worth. The plant should be online in 12 to 14 months, he said.
Less than 2,000 square feet of the 40-acre plant will be under roof, according to Middleton. The rest of the property will be devoted to feedstock storage, he said. SR 20 will maintain a 30-day supply of feedstock on site, all managed in airtight containers, he said.
When finished, the SR 20 plant will have the capacity to process 500 tons of scrap tires per day, according to Middleton. It expects to obtain more than 250 tons of feedstock daily from regional collectors, 10 times the typical capacity for recycling plants, he said.
“Who's going to get excited about what you're doing if you're only producing a ton a day?” he said.
The SR 20 plant is the culmination of five years of development and testing, according to Middleton. When finished, he said, the facility will produce 1,000 barrels per day of retail-ready, renewable fuel; 70 tons per day of refined carbon products; 70 tons per day of scrap steel; and three tons per day of elemental sulfur.
“Apparently we have glued things together that have never been glued together before,” Middleton said.