Retreads rolling along and racking up benefits

Retreaded tires are the unsung heros of reduction, reuse, recycling and recovery. Rarely getting news coverage or public attention, the many benefits of retreads have long been quietly appreciated by the trucking, bussing, heavy equipment and airline industries. These days, with new tire prices on the rise and the popularity of pickup trucks, SUVs, recreational vehicles and off-roading, retreads are also saving these drivers big bucks over new tires – up to 70 percent in some instances.

When you add in the green factor, particularly appealing to many consumers, retreads stand out as an environmentally smart way of reuse and reduction. The history of retreading dates back to the early 1900s, shortly after the advent of the balloon tire. It did not take a genius to see that when a tread wore off that it was a good idea to replace the tread rather than throwing away the bulk of the tire.

Retreading or recapping came into widespread use during World War II due to shortages of natural rubber and other commodities. Automobile tire retreading continued after the war, but as the number of tire brands, sizes and shapes multiplied, and as radials were introduced, it became uneconomical for many retreaders to keep up with the various molds required.

With today’s modern tire casing inspections and recapping processes, quality retreads are considered as safe as new tires. The Tire Retread Information Bureau (TRIB) claims there is no significant difference in quality between new and retreaded tires. Many large truck tires can be retreaded several times, delaying shredding or landfill disposal. Large truck tires are routinely retreaded as part of fleet tire-management programs. TRIB estimates that nearly half of all replacement truck tires are retreads with costs usually being 30 to 50 percent less than a new tire.

The environmental benefit analysis is a simple matter of economy of weight. Take, for example, a typical tractor-trailer tire. The retread rubber put to a drive axle tire may weigh 30 pounds, while the casing it is applied to may weigh 120 pounds. That’s 120 pound of recovered and reused material.

An Orbitread machine builds the tires with the new rubber layers that are to be molded into the new tread design. Each tire size and tread design has its own program in the machine.

Virtually all airlines use retreads and these tires undergo enormous stress during takeoffs and landings. According to TRIB, 80 percent of takeoffs and landings are on retreads. Retreaded tires are also widely used on school buses, racecars, military vehicles and by high-mileage ground-delivery companies like Federal Express and UPS.

Although natural rubber only comprises approximately 14 percent of a car tire and 27 percent of a heavy truck tire, it is a vital ingredient in the mix with synthetic rubber and carbon black –derived from petroleum – and other materials such as steel, fabrics, fillers and additives.

“Natural rubber is up over two dollars a pound now. Fifteen years ago, it was sixty cents a pound. There’s going to be a major shortage of natural rubber and this is going to apply to rereading and new tires, as more natural rubber is going to be required to help tires meet low rolling-resistance requirements that are coming to pass, starting in California. That’s going to add to the demand for natural rubber, because providing a higher content of natural rubber is the primary way most tire manufacturers improve their fuel-efficiency,” said Marvin Bozarth, senior technical director of the Tire Industry Association.

Natural rubber has recently become one of the hottest commodities traded on international rubber exchanges with rising prices seen in most. According to the Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries (ANRPC), the tightness in natural rubber supply will remain an issue because of an upsurge in demand from China and India for their booming auto and tire manufacturing industries. ANRPC believes that rubber prices will remain high for some time until supply recovers, possibly by early 2012.

Retreads are most often used on giant earthmoving equipment as well as by heavy trucks.

With the rising costs of natural rubber and petroleum combined with higher costs for energy to make tires, retreads are making more economic sense to more people. TRIB says it takes approximately 22 gallons of oil to manufacture one new truck tire. Most of the oil goes into the casing, which is reused in the retreading process. It only takes approximately seven gallons of oil to produce a retread – making them more cost efficient and environmentally friendly.

According to the website of Treadwright, Inc, of Hot Springs, South Dakota, the increased demand for retreads has kept them busy. A red-letter notice on their site stated: “Due to the high volume of orders we are receiving right now you may find that most sizes on our website are not in stock at this time. We greatly apologize for this and assure you that we are producing them as quickly as possible! We are back ordered on most sizes by an estimated 2 to 3 weeks.”

The business owner, Joel Hawkins, said, “Business has just been growing every year. We are doing very well. We just moved from Edgemont to Hot Springs, South Dakota to a larger 25,000 square-foot building.”

Treadwright has grown significantly over the past 3 years and now employs approximately 20 people. Today, the company produces 800 to 1,000 retreads per week. Three years ago, it was doing 300 or 400 per week. In 2011, the company forecasts that it will produce 1,200 to 1,300 retreads per week.

“We’ve experienced growth, but mostly over the past two years. All we do is sell directly to the public. Most of our business comes from word-of-mouth and our website. We also have an online presence in different forums, such as various Jeep clubs. We do a lot of four-wheel drive vehicles and light trucks.”

A pre-cured tread being applied to a truck casing.

Hawkins continued, “We stopped doing passenger car tires 13 years ago because new cars so often had different tire sizes. We could not keep up with the mold purchases to continue to make all of them.” Treadwright ships tires to all states, except for Alaska and Hawaii, and throughout Canada. “Sometimes we do container loads overseas. I can ship to Germany cheaper than I can to Alaska. We’ve seen a lot of inquiries from overseas but that business hasn’t picked up as yet.”

Hawkins attributes the confluence of the recession and rising prices of new tires for the increase in his business. “New tire prices have jumped significantly over the last couple of years. I know that Goodyear raised prices by about 30 percent in 2010 on many of their light truck tires, and prices are predicted to go up again in 2011.”

According to Hawkins, most passenger and light-truck tire casings can only be retreaded once. Treadwright acquires its casing from a number of tire recyclers. “For example, we work with Lakin Tires, a major dealer that collects tires from tire stores. We give them a list of the sizes and brands we will accept and they save them until they have a truckload. 15” tires are starting to disappear for us. We only do three, 15” sizes now. Mostly we do 16”, 17” and 18”. In 2011, we will start doing 20”.

“Lakin is good with their inspection process, but we send one of our people there to double-check them before they ship to us. We use two electronic NDT (nondestructive testing) inspection machines. Each tire has to go over those machines before it goes to a spreader. There a worker visually inspects it again. The casing is cleaned and repaired if necessary. From there a tire goes to a buffer where the old tread design is removed, new rubber is applied by extruders and then it goes to one of our 13 retreading machines.”

In most cases, Treadwright claims to save the consumer 50 to 70 percent over the cost of new tires with a similar tread design. When asked for an example, Hawkins said, “One of our 16” Jeep tires sells for $84.95 compared to a new tire with a similar tread design for $197, the last time I checked. We use a full-grade truck rubber on our retreads so the wear should be as good as higher-end new tires. We get a lot of referrals and repeat customers because people don’t want to spend money on a new tire when they can get the same mileage for half the price.” Treadwright offers a 2-year, 24,000-mile warrantee on workmanship on materials and has an 3 percent.

Obviously, heavy equipment and large truck tires account for the vast majority of retreading. Only a dozen or so retreaders in the United States, like Treadwright, specialize in smaller tire designs and sizes. And while retreading has the potential to go great lengths towards mitigating the amount of tire waste generated in the nation, the practice will never be the wild success that it could be if auto and tire manufacturers got together and adopted more uniform standards for tire sizes and profiles. Only then would retreading tires for passenger cars be more economically feasible. Considering the potentially huge savings of materials and energy, it’s a vision worth pursuing.