FEATURE - Ford turning recalled Firestone tires into dust
NEW YORK - Marty Sergi is not intimidated by the millions of recalled Firestone tires he is about to collect and recycle, which if all lined up would stretch from Detroit to San Francisco.
"Were not losing any sleep over handling Fords recall of Firestone tires," said Sergi, president of privately owned Recovery Technologies Group (RTG), which has a deal to collect and recycle about half of Fords nationwide recall of 13 million Firestone tires from its vehicles.
"In fact, Im sleeping like a baby."
Under mounting political and consumer advocacy pressure, Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford Motor Co. recalled 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires on its vehicles May 22 because of what it called "substantial failure risk."
Last August, in a separate move, the Firestone unit of Japans Bridgestone Corp. recalled 6.5 million tires after traffic deaths linked to Firestone tires fitted to Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles.
The recalls have been a public relations disaster for the two companies. They have led to the rupture of their nearly 100-year-old relationship, called into question the survival of the Firestone brand and blemished the efforts of Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr., great-grandson of founder Henry Ford, to rebuild the companys corporate reputation.
After recalling the tires in May, Ford was again under an intense public microscope. The worlds second-largest car maker faced a further public relations challenge because it could not afford simply to throw away millions of recalled tires.
Old tires lying in landfills are a breeding ground for disease-carrying insects that breed in trapped rain water. Discarded tires can also catch fire, sending acrid smoke and pollution for miles.
FORDS ENVIRONMENTAL IMAGE
Burning the tires would put a black eye on Fords efforts to cast itself as a clean, green 21st-century company. Tires burned as fuel produce air pollution.
Bridgestone, which expects to complete its recall by Aug. 29, said almost all its recalled tires had been shredded or burned for fuel.
Last year, there were 273 million tires discarded, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA), a US industry trade group. Less than 36 million of those were used in recycling projects, with the majority thrown in landfills or burned for fuel.
"Ford is scrambling to do anything they can to recover their loss of image and face," said Columbia University Business School Professor Gita Johar. "The tire recall has been a public relations disaster which Ford lost control of."
"However," she cautioned, "an environmental halo will not help them with the ground theyve already lost."
Ford signed an agreement with Guttenberg, New Jersey-based RTG for the tire collector to turn all recalled tires from Ford and Lincoln car dealerships into rubber crumb, which looks like black talcum powder and can be used in recyclable products like auto parts and athletic turf.
Rubber crumb was traditionally made by buffing, or shaving off the treaded part on old tires. This method, however, was limited by the steel and fiber in tires, which could not easily be separated from the rubber.
RTG has turned this process on its head by slicing the tires into 2-inch-by-2-inch bits and then freezing the chunks to minus 100 degrees using liquid nitrogen. It then shatters the brittle rubber chips into millions of pieces and separates the steel, fiber and rubber crumb components to be sold separately.
Ford expects to send about 6 million tires to RTG but said it does not have any plans yet to buy back rubber crumb as a raw material or in auto supply products, a move which has raised eyebrows among environmental and consumer groups.
"Part of recycling is not just creating recycled materials but also the markets for them," said Sierra Club spokesman Ed Hopkins. "I dont want to condemn Ford for environmental window dressing. And if they are genuinely trying to create markets for them, then thats a good thing," he said.
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE PLAN
But a major US tire collector and recycler, who asked not to be identified, said Fords plan is unworkable because RTG will be forced to subcontract the collection of tires to firms it cant regulate.
Because of this, he said there is a probability that the tires will end up back on the road. He added that RTG does not have the plant capacity to turn all the tires into crumb, and if it did, would flood a small market.
He dismissed the Ford plan as a public relations ploy.
RTGs Sergi denied the plan was unworkable but said that subcontractors would be collecting the tires. Sergi said no recalled tires would be reused on vehicles and added that Ford was working with RTG to create markets for rubber crumb.
RTG shreds and sells as fuel supply more than two-thirds of all the tires it collects, although it said all the Firestone tires will be turned into rubber crumb and not be burned.
ACROSS THE NATION
There still are questions about what will be done with the roughly 7 million tires sold by dealerships and tire sellers other than Ford. Ford said it is in discussions with them over how to handle the remaining tires in a responsible manner.
Last week, RTG started collecting tires from more than 4,600 car dealerships nationwide and expects to have all the tires at its eight US recycling sites in the next nine to 12 months.
An owner of a Ford Explorer in Alabama for example, would return the recalled tires to the local dealership. RTG would then collect the tires and ship them to its facility in Baytown, Texas, where they are frozen and broken down.
Each of RTGs facilities can handle about 500 tires an hour, the company said.
Ford declined to say how much it was paying RTG, which is owned by Casella Waste Systems Inc. . RTG competitors in the freezing process include BAS Recycling and Landstar Polymer Recovery Inc.
"Ford could have taken the easy way out, throwing the tires in a landfill," said Sergi. "But it decided to do something that makes environmental and business sense."
Story by David Howard Sinkman
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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