Recycled Rubber: The Next Great Sustainability Opportunity

A new set of tires can hurt more than just your wallet. Recognize the impact that end-of-life tires have on the environment when they are stockpiled in landfills rather than recycled and repurposed.
By Stratton Kirton
April 17, 2023

Rubber products are a staple in our lives because of how versatile, durable and cost-effective they are. They provide even more benefits in their second life once recycled, helping communities lower their carbon footprint and reduce waste. But too few policymakers understand the advantages of recycled rubber, let alone actively promote its use.

This lack of awareness has consequential impacts on public health. Discarded tires—whether in regular landfills or illicit dumps—are breeding grounds for mosquitos, rats and diseases carried by these pests, creating serious health hazards for communities across the U.S. In the 1980s, USTMA estimated that more than a billion end-of-life tires (ELTs) were being housed in stockpiles across the U.S.

Recognizing the environmental and public health effects of illegal tire dumping, the U.S. government began a serious push in the 1990s to clean up these hundreds of millions of illegally scrapped tires, according to the EPA. Working with federal, state and local governments, rubber recycling helped to clean up over 95% of stockpiled scrap tires.

Recently, the U.S. has lost its edge in global tire recycling, risking the consequences that come with the dangerous stockpiles. In 2013, the U.S. led the world with 96% of ELTs either being recycled or going to other secondary uses. Since then, America’s recycling rate has seen a steady decline, falling below Europe's in 2019 (the most recent year data is available for both Europe and the U.S.), with Europe recycling 91% compared to America's 76%.

The main reason for this decline is that tire production has been outpacing the potential markets for recycled rubber, despite that the industry is ripe for expansion, as experts agree that recycled rubber products are safe, environmentally friendly options. The need for these markets is only growing more urgent—currently, the U.S. has around 50 million waste tires stockpiled across the country, with the number of ELTs generated each year rising by 7% annually.

Thankfully, the options for secondary uses are plenty and often have benefits over alternatives, like rubber-modified asphalt that has increased resistance to potholes and is often more cost effective over the lifetime of a project than traditional asphalt, or recycled rubber playground surfaces, which provide more cushion than traditional surfaces and ensure ADA-compliance. Most tires are recycled into crumb rubber, which can then be used in a variety of items such as playgrounds, infill in sports fields, as a mixing agent for multiple surfaces and in building materials such as advanced flooring, rubberized concrete, paver stones and more.

Beyond providing great products, rubber recycling keeps more than 220 million tires out of landfills each year, reducing CO2 by over 8,000 pounds while supporting nearly 8,500 jobs, contributing to an estimated economic impact of $2.47 billion.

Rubber recycling presents an ideal opportunity to make progress toward an entirely circular economy. To help manage tire waste responsibly and encourage a robust rubber recycling industry, the Recycled Rubber Coalition recommends the following policies for the federal, state and local levels so that the U.S. can return to leading the world in reducing tire waste:

  • Increase research funding: The U.S. EPA and Department of Energy should prioritize grants for expanding the uses of recycled rubber—similar to existing programs for plastics recycling. Prioritizing research that supports market expansion is a necessary step to help the industry achieve higher levels of recycling and secondary use, ensuring the industry can increase recycling rates.
  • Enforce U.S. standards: While all U.S. tires adhere to high safety standards, tires from other nations with lower environmental standards often contain harmful chemicals. To keep recycled rubber safe, the U.S. should ensure that any imported rubber meets U.S. chemical and material standards to ensure that rubber can be recycled safely.
  • Establish preference in federal purchasing: The EPA maintains a list of recycled products that gain preference in federal procurement. While some recycled rubber goods have been included on the list, more should be added. There are many more areas where the federal government can use recycled scrap tire products to cut waste and emissions.
  • Implement new tire fees: Only 35 states have imposed fees on new tires. These fees are critical to funding new recycled rubber research and products, while also reducing illegal tire dumping. All 50 state governments should enact a fee of at least $1.50 on all new tires purchased and use the funds generated on recycling and cleanup grant programs.
  • Create tax incentives for equipment and facilities: Rubber recycling facilities create good-paying jobs and are centers of manufacturing and innovation in many communities. State and local governments should provide tax incentives for facility construction and the purchase of new equipment, such as tire shredders.
by Stratton Kirton

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