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Challenges and Solutions: Navigating the Road Ahead

It wasn't all that long ago when we saw huge piles of used tires taking up landfill space in areas all around North America, as well as the rest of the world. In the US alone, at one point there were millions of old tires in landfills and other areas, and with each tire weighing approximately 15 to 20 pounds, this problem was growing exponentially.


According to a study by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) conducted in 2020, these tire stockpiles create a hazard to the environment. One of the biggest threats is fire, with old tires causing spontaneous fires globally. Not only are the fires dangerous in themselves, they can lead to lasting problems for the environment.


One example of this is a tire fire in Minto, NB, Canada in 2019, which burned for several days. Nearly three years later, in 2022, the Department of Environment and Local Government said that contaminants, including petroleum, hydrocarbons, dioxins, metals, and others have been found in monitoring wells.

Pollution is just one of many challenges faced by the rubber recycling industry today. In the US alone, in 2019 the US Tire Manufacturers Association (USTMA) stated that more than 300 million scrap tires are dotting the landscape, in landfills and other areas. The EGLE study estimated that the annual earnings for the scrap tire industry is over $1 billion.


The industry is working hard to alleviate this problem, and today scrap tires are among the most recycled products in North America. But, this is not to say that there are not still many challenges within the industry. According to a 2019 report from the USTMA, more than 75 percent of scrap tires were being recycled into other products, including automotive products, landscaping mulch, asphalt modified with rubber, and more. While this number may seem high, it is actually down from the peak of over 95 percent in 2013.


Each year, there are more than one billion used tires, but only about 10 percent of these tires are recycled. This means that there is still plenty of room for growth within the industry.

Now more than ever, steps must be taken to create new markets and work with existing markets to recycle all scrap tires. This is necessary in order to protect the environment, as well as to create employment opportunities. The goal of the USTMA is to make the scrap tire industry more sustainable, and to find more uses for recycled rubber.


Challenges Within the Industry

Tires take up a lot of space in landfills. According to the website, The Balance Small Business, approximately 16 percent of scrap tires were in landfills. That is the equivalent to nearly 40 million tires taking up a great deal of landfill space. This is not even counting the scrap tires that are found in other areas, including backyards.

Tires are a problem for landfills. In addition to taking up space, they cause other issues that can greatly affect the environment. Gases, including methane, can be trapped in the hollow spaces of tires, seeping through landfills and forcing their way through landfill liners.


Tire Fires: Environmental Disasters

Tire fires can result in environmental disasters. For instance, let's look at a 1999 tire fire near Westley, California. The fire was the result of a lightning storm, and approximately seven million scrap tires were burning. According to a later study by the US Environmental Protection Agency (USPA), “a near-apocalyptic scene erupted”. The study stated that smoke was sent hundreds of meters into the air. As a result, soot was landing up to 100 km away. It took five weeks to extinguish this blaze, and during that time the surround land was affected. Noxious emissions were also spread due to this tire fire, and much oil came from the melted rubber.


Burning Tires Creating Problems in the Middle East and North Africa

The California tire fire is just one example of a global problem. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), harmful materials, including scrap tires, are used to create fires for industrial ceramic kilns. This is a great concern, according to EcoMENA (an area think tank working on green initiatives and ways to create sustainable development).

Burning tires for fuel is one way that companies recycle tires. Used in cement kilns, lime kilns, and paper and pulp mills, foundries, smelters, and electrical generating plants, it is a growing concern for environmental agencies in these areas. Technically, this can be classified as recycling, but there are better methods in place in other parts of the world.

In the US, regulations and technology are in place that better control tire derived fuel (TDF) combustion. Unfortunately, the regulations and technology that are seen in the US often do not exist in other parts of the world, and citizens of these areas are exposed to the effects that are caused by the burning of tires.

While burning tires is a source of energy for these kilns, it is concerning that the effects will greatly surpass the benefits in the long run. Yes, scrap tires do have a high heating value and are often used in the same manner as coal or wood, with one tire being able to burn for nearly one hour. But, while tires produce more energy than coal, the toxic fumes are hazardous to our health and to the environment.

Burning tires also leads to soil and water pollution. In fact, for every million tires that are burned, approximately 55,000 gallons of runoff oil is seeping into the environment. This oil is extremely flammable, and it must be collected and contained in order to prevent environmental disasters.

One of the biggest problems in the collecting and containment of this material is the cost. Cleaning tire fire areas is very costly, and can lead to a need for funding in order to prevent environmental disasters around the world.


Canadian Company Recycles Millions of Tires

In BC, Canada, Liberty Tire is taking steps to prevent environmental disasters caused by scrap tires. In fact, more than three billion pounds of rubber is recycled throughout North America, and that number will continue to grow.

There are more than 50 Liberty Tire facilities in Canada and the US, producing high-quality crumb rubber, rubberized asphalt, and surfaces for tracks and playgrounds. Liberty Tire reclaims tires from landfills, reducing the risk of polluted waterways and poor air quality. All parts of each tire is recycled and re-used, with downgraded tires being repurposed into products that are safer for the environment.


Other Uses for Scrap Tires

The fact that tires do not easily degrade as they are durable and made to last for many years means that they can be much more difficult to recycle than other items. This can also be a costly process, with many states within the US charging a tire tax for disposal. These fees can be anywhere from 25 cents per tire to more than $5 per tire, depending on the area.

But, there are many benefits to recycling and reusing scrap tires. In addition to using shredded tires as fuel for high-temperature combustion devices, there are other uses for public works and civil engineering.

These uses include creating back-fill for retaining walls, stabilizing slopes, vibration migration, landfill applications, lightweight embankment fill, draining fields for septic systems, sub-grade road insulation, and road repairs. Rubber mulch is often used to create surfaces for playgrounds, as well as for gardens and stables.

Crumb rubber or granulated rubber can be used for resurfacing athletic tracks, ground cover for playgrounds, rubber mats, asphalt, sealing materials, and plastics. In fact, according to a 1991 US Federal law, all state departments of transportation are required to add rubber to portions of federally-funded roadways.

Rubber powder is used to make many of the products that are made from crumb rubber. In fact, this market is expanding, and we will see even more products made from rubber powder.

It isn't just rubber from tires that is recycled. Steel belts can also be extracted to be smelted and then repurposed into other products. The fibre and nylon are also used to create carpeting, fiberglass, concrete, stucco, and other products.

What Does the Future Hold for the Scrap Tire Industry?

While there are many policies surrounding the environmental concerns over scrap tires are increasing, there are still many concerns to be dealt with. According to a 2021 Industry Research Outlook, published by Goldstein Research, “recycling of scrap tires is turning out as a perfect solution for reducing environmental pollution as well as (strengthening) the economic condition of the country”.

The study shows that the best alternative for recycled scrap tires lies in rubberized asphalt for road construction. However, there are still challenges when it comes to collecting and recycling tires and clearing them out of landfills, as well as preventing illegal landfills and protecting sensitive habitats.

Another problem is the recycling of steel wire from the rubber. This is a complex process that often lowers the profit margin of tire recycling companies.

As more and more companies are coming on board with tire recycling and repurposing, including Liberty Tire, we will begin to see fewer environmental disasters that are a result of tire fires.


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