NEW YORK -- Mike Potts wasn't motivated by an environmental ethic when he placed shredded rubber made from recycled tires beneath the jungle gym he built for his children.
"My prime concern was safety," said Potts, who spent $600 to buy 2« tons of the safety surface for his Tampa, Fla., home.
Whatever his intention, Potts was helping the growth of an industry that gives new meaning to the term e-commerce -- where "e" stands for ecology-minded.
Whether in playground surfaces, fuel alternatives, automobile parts, or indoor flooring, 64 percent of the 270 million tires thrown away in 1998 -- roughly one per U.S. citizen -- wound up in dozens of retail and industrial products, according to the Scrap Tire Management Council in Washington, D.C. The rest were retreaded and sold overseas, or put in landfills.
The largest market for recycled tires comes from "tire-derived fuel," used in power plants, paper mills and cement kilns. It accounts for two-thirds of the recycled tire industry's raw materials.
Demand for this alternative fuel enabled GreenMan Technologies of Lynnfield, Mass., to report net income of $4.7 million in 1999. The company expects to process 17 million tires per year into 2-inch fuel chips. GreenMan president Bob Davis said each tire contains about 2« gallons of fuel oil.
Davis, a self-proclaimed "practical environmentalist," said the tire recycling industry is still in its embryonic stage.
If that's the case, Sonoma County Stable and Livestock has been having a profitable gestation period. The Cotati, Calif., business has been selling about 500 custom-made -inch-thick rubber mats per month since the early 1990s.
Manufactured by R-B Rubber Products, Inc. of McMinnville, Ore., the mats make it easier to clean horse stables and help protect the animals' legs. "Your horse's legs are his life," says Sonoma County Stable and Livestock owner Lindy Giannecchini, who sells the matting for $1.63 per square foot.
Giannecchini says the mats have also become popular at "doggy day-care centers" in Marin County and have appeared in brochures as "pooch pads."
Human habitats and business establishments also provide a market for flooring made from recycled tires. Ads for stylish rubber flooring that come in dozens of colors and patterns appear in glossy design magazines, and retailers such as Circuit City, Foot Locker and West Coast Video have helped promote the resilient surface by using it in outlets across the country.
Design firm JGA, Inc. of Southfield, Mich., used a recycled tire product flooring called "Ever Roll" for the Nascar Thunder retail shop in Atlanta to evoke a racetrack theme.
As Bob Krinick, president of Task Floors in downtown New York put it: "What started out 15 years ago in gymnasium floors has gone kind of mainstream."
There certainly is enough raw material available for Krinick and other distributors. There are 500 million tires piled up in landfills across the United States, an environmentalist's nightmare because they catch fire easily and can burn out of control, emitting noxious chemicals into the air and releasing oils harmful to water sources.
The basic building blocks of many products made from recycled tires are minuscule rubber granules, known as "crumb." A common method of mincing tires into usable crumb entails freezing and pulverizing them, and separating unwanted fiber and steel from the rubber.
Dodge-Regupol Inc. of Lancaster, Pa., collects old tires, crumbs them and then turns them into products including rubber flooring and automobile parts. The company has 150 employees that turn products made from more than 2 million tires annually.
One of Dodge-Regupol's clients is General Motors, which uses 5.8 million pounds of recycled rubber annually in 35 different parts along the production line, including brake pedal pads and radiator baffles.
"We're doing it because it makes economic sense," said Wendy Lange, a GM engineer.
David Higby, the solid-waste program director for Environmental Advocates, an Albany, N.Y.-based organization, said he's happy companies and consumers are finding uses for these products made out of recycled tires. But he wondered if over the long haul, the marketplace can keep pace with America's growing piles of old tires.
"When environmentalists dream our dreams," Higby said, "we're not looking at the products that can be made from waste. We look to reduce the amount of waste."
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