US Industrial Rubber Recycling: Past, Present, and Future

US Industrial Rubber Recycling:  Past, Present, and Future

Every year, approximately 300 million tires are scrapped in the US, with a substantial portion of these ending up in America’s landfills. However, more than 100 million scrap tires are recycled in the US annually because of government environmental regulations and social pressure.

The recycling process has four major steps:

  • The tire is shredded.
  • The shredded material passes through a granulator to break it into smaller pieces.
  • Magnetic separation removes the steel, and screens and sifters eliminate fibers.
  • The material is further refined to meet particular specifications or into smaller granules

Historically, most scrapped rubber was used as power plant fuel and in civil engineering projects. However, recyclers have developed a variety of other outlets during the last decade.

Today, hundreds of US companies make a variety of industrial products from recycled rubber, including flooring, underlayment, mats, rolls, playground mulch, agricultural and landscaping products, speedbumps and other road traffic equipment, and artificial turf. While some of these end use markets are fairly mature, others have significant growth potential.

Effects of Government Regulations

Most manufacturers of recycled industrial rubber products operate in states with regulations requiring tire recycling, which ensure a steady supply of recycled rubber. The regulatory framework in these states also addresses such topics as how the rubber is recycled, health and safety concerns, and technical product standards.

New regulations can either positively or negatively impact the industry. For example, the Illinois EPA recently implemented restrictions on the use of recycled rubber as a fuel that had a profound effect on the profitability of recyclers, forcing them to send large amounts of impure recycled rubber to landfills at a substantial cost. On the other hand, manufacturers of recycled industrial rubber products can benefit greatly from regulations and initiatives that require additional recycling or promote their products.

The Impact of Consumers

Consumer awareness also has a profound impact on the US recycled industrial rubber products industry. As more people became aware of the problems posed by tire scrapping and placed increased importance on environmental issues, the use of recycled rubber products increased. Consumers placed pressure on governments to regulate tire scrappage, providing impetus for industry growth.

Because many consumers have a limited understanding of the varying quality of recycled industrial rubber products and focus instead on price, sales of inferior products –  many of which are imported or made from materials imported from Asia – have risen. In some instances, these products raised human health and safety issues, portraying the industry in a negative light. Critics have also argued that recycled industrial rubber products from other parts of the world are not produced in an environmentally friendly way.

The Outlook for the Recycled Rubber Products Industry is Cautiously Optimistic

The US recycled industrial rubber products industry has considerable growth potential. As the number of motor vehicles in the US increases to 275 million in 2021, the amount of rubber recycled in the US will grow, allowing manufacturers to ramp up production.

Environmental concerns will continue to grow in importance in the US, stimulating consumer interest in recycled rubber products. Additionally, state and national governments will continue to encourage rubber recycling because of its numerous environmental benefits.

The lower cost of recycled rubber, relative to vulcanized rubber and other materials, will continue to ensure its competitiveness. Rubber recyclers are constantly working to find new applications and new markets for their products, which will help ensure the industry’s viability. These manufacturers are often lean, quick to respond to change, and focused on niche markets that leading companies overlook, which allows them to compete with larger corporations.

Other factors that will allow recycled rubber companies to compete with leading rubber product suppliers include their ability to:

  • operate on a year-round basis, instead of seasonally
  • offer a wider range of products and options (e.g., different sizes and colors)
  • make less expensive products
  • offer high levels of personalized customer service

Concerns About Regulations and Consumer Behavior Temper the Industry Outlook

Regardless of market developments, the future of US recycled industrial rubber products industry will continue to be heavily impacted by government regulations, which can either stimulate growth or stifle it. A regulatory framework that doesn’t reflect real world conditions will severely limit the industry’s growth potential.  On the other hand, measures that encourage tire recycling and give preference to recycle industrial recycled products will provide the impetus for growth. 

The recycled industrial rubber products industry’s future success also requires greater customer awareness of these products and their value, which must be promoted at both the government and business level for the industry to prosper. Consumers must research the different recycled industrial rubber products available on the market and gain a better understanding of how they are made, which will allow them to purchase the product that best meets their needs.

The US recycled rubber products industry has a proven track record of growth, and manufacturers are well positioned to take on most challenges. As the industry matures, the spread of best practices will accelerate and suppliers will grow in size, allowing them to compete in a larger number of markets.

Want to Learn More?

To learn about past and projected market trends about global industrial rubber products on both a geographic and product basis, see The Freedonia Group’s Global Industrial Rubber Products study.

About the Author

Gleb Mytko is an Industry Analyst at The Freedonia Group, where his work covers the global automotive, transportation, and machinery markets.