Just 20 years ago, there were approximately 1 billion scrap tires in stockpiles across the United States. Besides the obvious health hazards that are associated with stagnant water (a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes), the risk of disease and tire fires led the government and industry to aggressively reduce the number of tires in stockpiles by finding alternative uses for them. As a result, the total was reduced to just over 100 million tires by the year 2007 even though 300 million scrap tires were generated in that particular year.
As it stands today, there are a number of products made from recycled tires, two of which are rubber chips used for mulch and crumb rubber used on athletic fields. The benefits of using rubber chips as mulch range from the longevity of the mulch (which is often more than 10 years) and the fact that water is not retained (it goes straight to the soil). While crumb rubber used on athletic fields has received unwarranted negative attention over the past few years by the media, studies conducted by the tire industry and the government have revealed that there are no health risks associated with this particular use of recycled rubber.
Scrap tires can also be turned into rubber asphalt, which is another useful product. Unlike standard paving materials, rubber asphalt has been shown to expand and contract without the cracking that comes with normal freeze and thaw cycles. It's also been shown to reduce road noise and water spray as a result of the porosity of the material. Unfortunately, rubber asphalt requires special equipment and extra attention to detail. And since the first generation of this product did not perform at the same level as standard asphalt, many government highway officials are still reluctant to give it a try. It's like someone refusing to use a digital video recorder because they had problems programming their VCR years ago.
But the most popular use of scrap tires is tire derived fuel, or TDF. TDF is widely used by cement kilns as an alternative to coal and other energy sources because it is more economical and efficient. Millions of tires are kept out of landfills and tire stockpiles because they can be cut up into pieces and used as TDF without any processing. It's basically a win-win situation for everybody involved, except the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is trying to reclassify scrap tires in order to require companies that use TDF to utilize scrubbers and other technology that reduce emissions. If the EPA is successful, industry experts predict that TDF will cease to be an economical fuel alternative, leaving millions of scrap tires without a home.
Fleets are already saddled with scrap tire disposal and recycling fees because tire dealers and retreaders are forced to pay licensed haulers to dispose of them. And there is still no guarantee that the licensed hauler won't dump the tires illegally and then leave the dealer (and possibly the fleet) in the middle of a Superfund cleanup. While diligent recordkeeping should offer some level of protection, it can have the opposite effect when the government starts looking for responsible parties to pay for the cleanup. Trucks cannot move without tires and when the casing is ultimately removed from service, it has to go somewhere.
Fleets can do their part by searching for ways to incorporate recycled rubber products into their everyday operations and by encouraging government officials to do the same.
Kevin Rohlwing can be reached at [email protected]