Sustainability is a hot topic in the rubber industry. Not a day goes by that some company or another doesn't publish its annual report on the issue.
While there seemingly is so much activity going on with regard to sustainability, it's sad to see that there has been some backsliding in the recycling of scrap tires, one of the most basic ways to achieve progress and success in sustainability.
In its just-released 2019 Scrap Tire Management Report, the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association puts it in blunt terms: the "efforts to find and develop new uses for scrap tires have stalled."
It would be a shame to see all the hard work the USTMA has put in over the past three decades to make tire recycling a success story go to waste, no pun intended. There was a time when news was common of large tire stockpiles catching fire and diseases being spread by mosquitoes that found refuge in those tires.
But under its former moniker of the Rubber Manufacturers Association, the group spearheaded the effort that eliminated 94 percent of the more than 1 billion tires that were once stockpiled around the U.S. There also was a big push to find end markets for scrap tires, with tire-derived fuel, goods made of ground rubber, rubber-modified asphalt and civil engineering projects emerging as some of the top reuses.
Progress peaked in 2013, when a staggering 96 percent of the scrap tires generated found a useful market. That percentage has eroded steadily since, with 88 percent finding markets in 2015, 81 percent in 2017 and just more than 75.6 percent last year, according to biennial reports published by the USTMA.
Looking closer at the math, there were 303.5 million light duty and commercial scrap tires generated in 2019. Of those, 40.1 million were deemed in good enough condition to be re-sold as used tires, leaving 263.4 million tires. Markets were found for just 205.8 million, with another 41.5 million sent to landfills. That leaves the rest to be among the 56 million tires the association found to be in stockpiles in the U.S.
The USTMA said one of the reasons for the percentage drop in tire recycling is that the number of scrap tires generated has risen by nearly 7 percent a year, while the number of scrap tires finding markets has remained fairly stagnant. That is true to some extent, but the group's data shows an 8-percent drop from 2013-19 in the number of scrap tires that found useful markets, with the main culprit being TDF, which declined by 22.3 percent during that six-year period.
The association knows that the time for action is now to stop the erosion, urging all involved from state regulators and federal law makers to recyclers, industry and environmental groups and academic partners to make the advancement of a circular economy a top priority.
In the end, though, it's going to take a back-to-basics approach. The USTMA, backed by the expertise of its members, will need to be proactive in convincing stakeholders that a successful scrap tire mitigation program not only benefits the environment, but the economy as well.