Media coverage speculating about a connection between cancer and crumb rubber used on athletic fields put a crimp in a major end market for scrap tires, even though the alleged link has not held up to scientific scrutiny. Panelists at the Tire Spotlight session at the online ISRI2021 event say they are creating an alliance to stave off such reputational damage in the future.
The session, organized by the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and hosted by Mark Rannie of Baltimore-based Emanuel Tire LLC, portrayed a scrap tire market facing challenges on the end market and the regulatory front. Rannie and ISRI Chief Policy Officer/Assistant General Counsel Danielle Waterfield said the association can play a key role moving forward, but a broader alliance will be even more helpful.
Legislators in several states have proposed extended producer responsibility (EPR) systems for tires, an idea considered unwelcome by ISRI and its tire recycling members, says Waterfield. Thus far, ISRI has been able to convince lawmakers EPR is a bad fit for tire recycling, but Waterfield says the idea is unlikely to completely disappear.
Some states have term limits, creating “high turnover in legislators,” she commented. Although ISRI staff and member companies should continue to seek out relationships with elected officials, Waterfield says ISRI is finding value in engaging with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a fellow Washington-based trade association that provides policy research services to state lawmakers. “Your trade association is working with their association and funneling our message to NCSL and other associations like it,” said Waterfield.
Situations like the athletic turf scare and recurring EPR efforts mean, “As an industry, the minute we think we’ve tackled an issue, a new idea is presented,” said Amy Bracken, a vice president with Pittsburgh-based Liberty Tire Recycling.
Bracken says tire processors and recyclers should seek collaboration on a broad front. “The more we can work together with other associations and other industries [provides] an opportunity to have a louder voice in these conversations,” she remarked.
Among the people helping build that coalition is Stratton Kirton, managing director of Washington-based public affairs consulting firm Hamilton Place Strategies (HPS). Kirton and Bracken both referred to a policy proposal in the European Union designed to address “micro-plastics” that defined the term to include pieces of plastic up to five millimeters (about 0.2 inches) in size. Such a policy may cast scrutiny toward any recycling operating that shreds or granulates any plastic or polymer—including tire processors and even auto shredding plants.
The environmental advocacy storm that has roared through the plastics industry should serve as a warning, said Kirton. “I think plastics is a good example of a conversation that got kind of ahead of them. Now they’re putting billions of dollars into trying to tell their story to correct the record about the supply chain and recycling for them.”
The tire processing sector “has a really great story, on recycling, that a lot of industries don’t,” said Kirton. “Most people don’t know it,” he added, because tire processing is predominantly a business-to-business endeavor, so household consumers “don’t really think about it.”
The internet and social media means “activism, in some ways, hot gotten a lot easier,” he continued. ISRI and allies such as the United States Tire Manufacturers Association (USTMA) will be better off telling their story proactively. “You’re not going to win the war if you’re only playing defense,” he said.
“We need to make sure companies and organizations like ISRI are focused not on telling people ‘We’re not bad,’ but promoting the benefits,” said Kirton. With a global focus on sustainability and controlling emissions, tying tire recycling into “broader sustainability and climate goals” can be the “ounce of prevention” the sector needs to secure its future, he indicated.
Bracken said ISRI and Liberty Tire Recycling would be well served to consider the strategy proposed by Kirton and HPS. “We’ve all got to work together,” she stated. “Let’s stop being on our heels and let’s shift that narrative to the proactive and show people the good we can be doing.”