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Danish rubber recycler Genan’s big new tire recycling plant in Houston is entering a rubber recycling market that, to appearances, is stable and already well-served by existing domestic facilities.

The company, which also operates large tire recycling plants in Germany and Denmark, spent 2 years and $140 million building recycling capacity for approximately 10 million passenger car tire equivalents at the Texas plant. And, according to the company, this is just the initial entry in a long-term plan to build 4 new plants across the U.S. to capture 10 percent of the American tire recycling market.

Genan’s moves surprised U.S. tire recycling veterans, who see a generally stable industry lacking growing markets, innovative technologies or unsatisfied demand for a new player to address. “Right now it’s the older markets that are expanding,” according to Michael Blumenthal, vice president for the Washington, D.C.-based Rubber Manufacturers Association. “Few new markets are out there.”

Blumenthal said that tire-derived fuel, which has been the dominant use for recycled tires in the past, will continue to increase. “Tire-derived aggregate will remain at low levels of usage,” Blumenthal added. “The use of rubber modified asphalt is a function of the number of lane miles paved, which right now is down considerably.”

Use of crumb recycled rubber as infill for creating artificial sports fields is currently stagnant, Blumenthal said. Two growing markets are rubber mulch and extruded and molded products created from materials containing recycled rubber. “Rubber mulch has increased,” Blumenthal said. “Molded/extruded products have increased gradually.”

That’s similar to the experience of Max Daughtrey, vice president of operations for Four D Corp., based in Duncan, Oklahoma. Daughter said the plant opened in the mid-1990s to supply recycled rubber for asphalt paving projects.

After the paving market never materialized, Four D developed a market supplying makers of rubber mats for use in dairy cow stalls. “I shipped probably three million pounds of those things,” Daughtrey said. “We shipped them all over the world.”

Later markets included ground rubber for making children’s play areas and playgrounds, and rubber mulch for horticultural purposes. “Then we got into the artificial turf business and did that for several years,” Daughtrey said. “That’s kind of winding down.”

More recently, the molded products industry has begun consuming recycled rubber. Molders mix rubber and plastic together and extrude the material into products such as rot-resistant planks for use in the flooring of horse and cattle trailers. Daughtrey also sells recycled rubber to companies that make it into durable spacers to put between joints in cement structures.

The rubberized asphalt business still looks promising. Recycled rubber additives have long been known to give asphalt roads greater durability and are safer for motorists to drive on than comparable materials. More recently, the polymers that compete with recycled rubber for use as asphalt additives have become more expensive, making recycled rubber more competitive. However, state highway departments have been slow to accept rubber-modified asphalt.

“We’re looking toward rubberized asphalt again, but the state of Oklahoma has not decided to use it yet,” Daughtrey said. The company does sell some material to another company that regrinds it into smaller particles and sells it to the Texas highway department for use in asphalt, he said.

Four D processes approximately three million tires per year, and Daughtrey said they would like to do more. “We can’t get enough tires,” he said. “We have to supplement production from several of our competitors.” Part of the problem is logistics – Four D doesn’t have a large enough fleet of trucks. However, Daughtrey also said the supply of tires in the region is not excessive compared to the capacity of recyclers or the needs of markets for recycled tires. He speculated that the new Genan plant might be able to import tires from Europe or other markets in order to utilize its capacity.

Rather than added capacity, Daughtrey said rubber recyclers would benefit from having more information about the ingredients tire manufacturers use to create their products. “If we had some indication of what they’re putting in these tires, it would help us tremendously,” he said. However, tire makers guard the materials for their tires very closely, so recyclers are usually in the dark about what is included in the tires they are recycling.

This has caused problems in the past when, for instance, tire makers began adding Kevlar fibers without informing recyclers. “We had to find out the hard way that they were putting Kevlar in these tires,” Daughtrey said. The Kevlar synthetic fiber tended to cake and clog sensitive precision recycling machinery, he explains.

Similarly, when tire manufacturers began selling tires that contained sealant, they were found to be impossible to process using existing machinery. “I have a stack of a couple thousand of those that I can’t run through,” Daughtrey said.

In a plant like Four D’s, which processes 12,000 lbs of tires per hour, there isn’t time to inspect each individual tire to find out what it’s made of, he said. “If we had some indication of what they’re putting in these tires, it would help us tremendously,” he said. For the moment, however, Daughtrey said recyclers were having no success getting information on tire ingredients.

There has also been little recent change in other key elements of the tire recycling industry, such as regulation. Blumenthal said states are tightening up permitting and hauling requirements, but not much else is happening in regard to regulation. And, while laws requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for disposal of end-of-life products are common in Europe, he said such legislation has not gotten anywhere in the United States.

So for the moment, the entry of a fresh competitor in the U.S. tire recycling industry is among the biggest news in the field. Genan said it serves the same markets as existing recyclers, including artificial turf, playgrounds, sports tracks, asphalt roads, building products, flooring, and injection molded products. However, the company also said that in the next two years its new Houston plant will begin producing very fine cryogenic rubber powder as well as de-vulcanized rubber that can be used in place of virgin rubber.

Published in the July 2014 Edition of American Recycler News