Tires, and the second chemical revolution

EarthTalkTires“If we’ve made it once already, why should we make it again?”

Alan Barton, the chief executive officer of Lehigh Technologies, is talking about tires, but his question could be asked about almost any product.

In a world of limited resources and rising energy costs, why not turn everything that we no longer need or want into something else?

This is the aspirational goal of what’s called cradle-to-cradle design. It’s easy to talk about and hard to do, as I was reminded last week when talking with Barton about Lehigh, a privately-held, venture-backed company that turns worn out tires into what it calls “micronized rubber powders,” or MRPs, that are then used in new tires as well as shipping pallets, asphalt roads and waterproofing, among other things.

I learned a lot about tires during our interview. Roughly speaking, about one tire per person is discarded every year in the US or western Europe. That’s a lot–nearly 300 million in the US. They used to be discarded under bridges or in trash dumps until governments and the tire industry set up recycling and collection systems. Now, most are burned for fuel, often in paper mills or in cement kilns, with an emissions profile similar to coal. Others are ground up for construction materials, mulch, roads or sports surfaces, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association. Some, of course, still wind up in dumps. [click to continue…]