When looking at the issue of scrap tire recycling in the U.S., there is no doubt that a tremendous amount of progress has been made since 1990, when the then-named Rubber Manufacturers Association began its scrap tire program under its Scrap Tire Management Council.
At the time, there were an estimated 1 billion tires stockpiled around the country and the utilization rate was in the 10-percent range. Scrap tires were in the news often, and it was never good. There were countless tire fires at stockpiled dumps, creating a safety and environmental nightmare. Some sites had unfathomable numbers of tires that were a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Fast forward to today, and the now-named U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association says those stockpiles have dwindled by 94 percent, with roughly only 60 million tires stored in such sites around the nation, according to its just released 2017 Scrap Tire Report. About 18 states report having no stockpiled tires at all, and roughly 75 percent of stockpiles are bunched in two states: Colorado and Texas.
The total utilization rate stood at 81.4 percent in 2017, a far cry from the 10 percent of 1990. By most measures, scrap tires are a recycling success story, especially when looking at the troubles of other industries, particularly plastics, which have been under increasing scrutiny in recent years.
Even with these positive trends, there are a few troubling signs and definite areas for improvement. After all, the USTMA's Sustainability Vision is that "all scrap tires are managed as valuable materials with self-sustaining markets resulting in zero scrap tire stockpiles and 100 percent beneficial end use."
For 2017, tire-derived fuel continued to be the largest end market by far, accounting for recycling of 43 percent of the estimated 255.6 million scrap tires generated in the U.S. last year. But TDF usage has dropped in recent years, trending down since 2013 and falling nearly 10 percent from 2015-17.
Ground rubber was the second largest user of scrap tires, coming in at 25 percent. The overall numbers here remained relatively stable from 2015-17, but it was one area that received a huge amount of bad press in 2014-15, when NBC News ran a series of reports that looked to connect ground rubber on athletic fields with higher rates of cancer among young women athletes.
A lot is riding on Environmental Protection Agency and California studies as to the ultimate fate of crumb rubber as a filler for athletic turf and playground surfacing. It will be interesting to see if they regain market share if the studies are favorable, or if lingering prejudice will continue to keep usage down.
Also troubling is that tires sent to landfills spiked 43.3 percent from 2015-17, representing nearly 40 million tires. And the overall utilization rate fell from 95.9 percent in 2013 to 87.9 percent in 2015 to the 81.4 percent last year, a trend the USTMA says is caused by an increase in scrap tire generation and end market fluctuations.
A good report? Yes. Room for improvement? Most definitely.