Rubber has a myriad of uses and can be produced both naturally, through the harvesting of latex found in certain plants and trees, and synthetically, through a process that uses hydrocarbons found in petroleum. Although it has been around for centuries, it was not until the 18th century that manufacturers and scientists started to find commercial applications for rubber – for coats, footwear, etc. Vulcanization, the process by which rubber is made more durable (*better strength, resistance, and elasticity) by adding curative ingredients, emerged in the 19th century and the introduction of it to existing rubber manufacturing expanded the uses for rubber significantly.
Today, the prevalence of rubber products in the United States is considerable; one of the most regularly occurring uses of rubber is in tires for various vehicles, of which at least 280 million are discarded every year – and that’s just tires. One can add to these numbers the instances of other discarded rubber products and this pushes the figures drastically higher. Because of this, rubber recycling has become commonplace and an accepted part of the lifecycle of rubber products (*not just rubber tires). The recycling and re-use efforts go a long way toward keeping public landfills free of millions of tires and other rubber products.
When rubber is recycled, the material is broken down and ultimately reused for a new product; recycling old rubber for a new item actually costs less than manufacturing new rubber for the same item. Rubber can be outright refurbished – an example of this would be re-treading old or worn tires; it can be broken down completely and turned into a new product – tires can be tuned into anything from shoes, to wastebaskets to kitchen sinks; and finally, it can be burned to produce energy that can be used for further manufacturing, such as electricity or other uses (*asphalt, civil engineering projects, etc.).
According to the Environmental Protection Agency*, re-usage and recycling of rubber tires increased 63.4% (from 17% in 1990 to 80.4% in 2003) in less than 15 years. These numbers illustrate the acceptance of recycling as well as the increased post-recycling market for reconstituted rubber for manufacturing and energy. However, even with the awareness and implementation of recycling programs, tire disposal via landfills is still an issue. This has resulted in dedicated areas at landfills that are designated for one type of material (these sectors are called ‘monofils’); many states are banning them outright from all areas in all landfills and most states are now adopting state sponsored scrap tire management programs.
Today, recycled rubber is used to manufacture construction materials such as roofing tiles, clothing and footwear (coats, belts, boots, sandals), household goods (kitchen accessories, furniture) and assorted goods we use in our day to day lives (yoga mats, wallets, children’s toys, etc.). The Environmental Protection Agency continues to find uses for recycled tires and rubber that will benefit society – shredded tires can be used to make eco-friendly mulch that is in turn used in numerous landscaping projects from running trails to golf courses. Tires won’t likely be going away anytime soon; because they are the number one source of discarded rubber in the country the evolution of their full life cycle will continue to include many facets of recycling and post-consumer re-use for the foreseeable future.
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