A Greek philosopher once said, “The only thing that is constant is change,” which definitely applies to the recycling industry. I have been fortunate to wear many hats for ISRI, and in addition to serving as Tire Division Chair, I am also Chair of the Challenges & Opportunities Committee. This is a relatively new committee established by ISRI National Chair Brian Shine, with an objective of looking down the road to see the challenges and opportunities our industry will face in the future.
Through this committee, we are monitoring several new activities that may fundamentally change the way we operate our businesses. One such activity is the onset of “chemical recycling,” which is taking a material and breaking it down to its polymer form; and from there, transforming it to “near virgin resin quality.” This concept is sweeping across the plastics recycling space and is gaining a lot of traction. Of course, as tire recyclers, we have seen all of this before, and are aware of countless projects that sought to turn scrap tires into oil, gas, and other feedstocks. We have watched as most of these projects have failed due to scalability and economic issues, or a variety of other reasons. But it is with a hopeful eye that I look at chemical recycling and the possibilities it brings. A recent report by Closed Loop Partners identified more than 60 companies that are moving into chemical recycling – all backed by venture capital funds, chemical and oil companies, and many other stakeholders. With backing like that, maybe this time someone will be able to transcend the problems of the past in the tire recycling space. With those problems solved, we may see the promise of a new outlet for scrap tires.
Another big opportunity is Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is not like the Terminator coming to enslave the human race, as we see in popular culture. AI is the ability to bring massive computing power to a problem and empowering the computer to make decisions based on a set of parameters. One application is giving AI the ability to pick curbside recyclables off of a conveyor belt. Through this process, AI can help reduce contamination, and increase the quality of ISRI member’s paper, plastic, and MRF bales. But what if we could apply AI to our operations? What if we could have robots grade tires in a more efficient manner, and spot defects we might not see? Perhaps those same robots could read DOT numbers off the sidewall (where possible) and categorize the make and model of tires that are coming into our yards? AI could help revolutionize the data we collect and the way we process our scrap tires.
All of this leads me to believe the scrap industry is at a crossroads, and how we decide to utilize these new technologies will determine our future for years to come. Personally, I am looking forward to seeing what doors these new technologies will open for us. Change is a good thing, and in this case, it can lead to a much brighter future for our companies.
Please be safe.
Tire and Rubber Division Chair