Festering stockpiles of used passenger tires were once considered an environmental problem, but provincial recycling programs have collectively achieved one of the best diversion rates in the world, and one company plans to go further by marketing and selling retreaded tires.
Canada generates roughly 30 million tires per year, and up to 98 per cent of them were diverted from landfill in 2012, according to the Rubber Association of Canada. The association represents 26 rubber manufacturers, including 14 tire manufacturers that collectively make up 80 per cent of the market. Two-thirds of scrap tire material stays in Canada to be managed and recycled, with unprecedented uses and demand for that material.
"A tire can be grinded down in several stages, chopping it up into smaller and smaller pieces, as fine as sand or powder, if need be," said Glenn Maidment, the association's president. "Since a tire is made up of three compounds, you end up with three streams: crumb rubber, steel and fibre (nylon or polyester).The rubber already has its uses, and the steel is very high quality, so it can be sold to the scrap metal market. But the fibre sometimes ends up in landfill because it has very little market value."
Mat makers use recycled tire rubber, as do sports surfacing businesses that use it for different surfaces in stadiums, like the Rogers Centre in Toronto. Crumb rubber is mixed into asphalt, too, more so in the United States than Canada.
Tire-derived fuel is another use, wherein shredded tires are mixed with coal or wood for burning in concrete kilns or power plants – a practice not allowed in every province. Tire-derived aggregate applies the shredded rubber to gravel mixtures, thermal insulation, and vibration attenuation and drainage layers, among others.
Maidment admits that the industry is stumped on how to de-vulcanize the rubber itself to separate the eight-to-10 different compounds inside. If there was a way to get it back to its constituent parts and properties, it might be possible to re-purpose the different rubbers separately.
The Canadian Association of Tire Recycling Agencies represents all tire recycling agencies in the 10 provinces and the Yukon. Bob Ferguson, the association's program manager, says consumers pay a recycling fee for each new tire they purchase, ranging from $3 to as high as $5.69 in Ontario.
"What we're trying to do as an industry over time is get to the stage where we can reduce the obligatory recycling incentives paid to those doing the actual recycling," says Ferguson. "Longer term, the vision is that recycled tire rubber will become more of an in-demand commodity that has value rather than strictly a waste product that consumers have to pay to have turned into recycled product."
Tires on commercial vehicles like transport and mining trucks, buses and airplanes, and even military vehicles, can be retreaded as many as three times because they have a steel casing. Passenger car tires don't, and that's why retreading has never been applied to them in a meaningful way.
Ferguson says tire recycling agencies aren't talking about retreading passenger tires, while Maidment says the tire industry doesn't recommend it because they were never designed for it in the first place. The practice has been undertaken for years in Germany, Spain and Brazil, but has never caught on in North America.
However, one company in St. Mary's, Ont., is willing to give it a go. Green Arc Tire Manufacturing announced in November, 2013, that it was building a $37-million facility to retread up to three million passenger tires per year. That would make Green Arc the largest used tire manufacturer in North America, and its eco-tires would be available at tire retailers across Canada and the United States at 30-50 per cent less than new ones.
"The technology in dealing with rubber compounding has come a long way, and we would be reusing 80 per cent of the original tire components, with new compounds making up the other 20 per cent," says Danna O'Brien, spokeswoman for Green Arc. "They're every bit as durable, meet all of Transport Canada's safety specifications and have the same warranty as any other tire."
AirBoss, a rubber compounding firm, would supply the new rubber from its facility in Kitchener, Ont. The retreading process would also use less energy and oil to produce, with virtually no waste, O'Brien says. All old branding would be removed from the sidewall and rebranded as Green Arc. Winter tires are its "signature" but the firm will be able to handle all-season tires, as well as those for SUVs, light trucks and performance vehicles.
"It's giving tires a second life," O'Brien says.
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