Reinventing the wheel doesn’t happen very often. However, reinventing tire recycling has been an ongoing endeavor of entrepreneurs across the centuries. Tires have come a long way from being an environmental challenge in the late 1900s to a profitable resource with a developed secondary recycling process.
Let’s travel through the history of tire recycling, exploring the milestones that have transformed this pollution issue into an environmental success story.
1. Rudimentary Beginnings
500 BCE – 1800s CE
Early civilizations used a variety of natural materials, such as grass and mud, to cushion the wheels of carts and chariots. Wagons had wooden wheels fitted with a steel or iron frame to protect the more fragile wood. Rubber tires came along in the 1800s with the first automobiles and bicycles, bringing with them a host of environmental issues. Rubber was used because of its incredible traction and relatively long lifespan.
2. Landfills and Open Burning
1800s – Early 1900s
As the use of rubber tires became more prevalent, the disposal dilemma grew. In the late 1800s, tires were discarded in landfills or burned in open pits. These disposal methods were convenient, but the tire fires caused air pollution and were difficult to extinguish. While automobiles remained a novelty, the large-scale effects seemed negligible. However, with the success of Henry Ford and the assembly line, pneumatic tires (tires that use air pressure) became ubiquitous. Tires soon became the icon of roadside pollution.
3. Innovations in Tire Recycling
The mid-20th century saw significant strides in tire recycling technologies, as in almost every other industry. Rubber shortages during WWII led to the development of a process called “pyrolysis.” Pyrolysis is a process that superheats rubber in the absence of oxygen, converting tires into carbon black, fuel oil, and steel wire. This marked the first steps towards repurposing tires and reducing their environmental impact.
4. Introduction of Tire Shredders
The invention of tire shredders revolutionized tire recycling. Charles Cresson Wood patented the first tire shredder in 1972, and the tire industry quickly adopted it. Tire producers recognized the need for sustainable waste management. These powerful machines could shred tires into small pieces, making it easier to process them into useful materials. Despite some tire shredders being prone to blockage, this breakthrough significantly increased the efficiency and viability of tire recycling efforts.
5. Rise of Crumb Rubber
The concept of “crumb rubber” didn’t catch on right away. Initially, tire shreds were mostly used for rough construction work and as TDR (tire-derived field). In the 1980s, some tire recycling companies shredded tires further into granules of rubber. Early adopters included Liberty Tire Recycling and Leigh Technologies, two of the biggest tire recycling corporations globally.
Crumb rubber gained popularity due to its diversified industry applications. Recyclers could now use crumb rubber to make sports surfaces, playgrounds, and even rubberized asphalt for road construction. This innovation opened new doors for tire recycling, addressing the increasing number of waste tires being discarded into the environment.
6. Carbon Black Extraction
In the late 1990s, researchers developed a novel method to extract carbon black from used tires. Carbon black is a valuable industrial material used in the manufacturing of tires, ink, and various other products. Companies like Delta-Energy Group and Scandinavian Enviro Systems played significant roles in advancing this technology. The idea of pyrolysis has been around for a while, but only in the last couple of decades has it been done in mass to produce high-quality carbon black.
7. Sustainable Initiatives
In the present day, tire recycling has become an integral part of sustainable waste management practices worldwide. Governments, environmental organizations, and tire manufacturers collaborate to implement recycling programs, ensuring that discarded tires are diverted from landfills. However, in many rural communities, tire waste remains an issue, and more tire recyclers are needed to fill these under served areas.
8. Future Prospects
As technology and awareness continue to advance, tire recycling could easily be transformed again by a new technology or use case. Research is ongoing to explore cutting-edge methods, such as using tire-derived materials in construction, creating eco-friendly footwear, and developing new synthetic materials.
In a Wrap
The history of tire recycling showcases the role innovation has played in causing and addressing environmental challenges. From ancient civilizations’ rudimentary wheel coverings to today’s innovative tire recycling technologies, tires often fly under the radar without many people giving them a second thought. However, we wouldn’t be where we are today without them and subsequent tire cutting equipment.
Moving forward, it’s easy to think that current recycling practices are optimal. Understanding the story of tire recycling, though, inspires us to seek more sustainable alternatives, embrace innovative tire recycling machinery, and focus on the environmental impacts of our products. Tires, once a symbol of waste, can shift over time to represent a cleaner, greener, and more sustainable world.