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EARTHWATCH : Tire Recycling : The modern cold process technology has led to a safer retread--and it saves on oil too.


I discovered this week that I've been traveling on retread tires and didn't know it.

No, I'm not going to complain to the Better Business Bureau that my tire dealer is a crook. In fact, he is the one who told me that I was traveling on retreads. But they weren't on my car. They were on the 747 jet I took to visit my mother at Christmas. They were on every jetliner I've ever flown on. And even on those F-14 fighters we're seeing on the war news. There's a story here, wouldn't you say?

I had checked in with my dealer for the usual reason. I'm not macho about tires, but there comes a time when, to coin a phrase, "you can see the whites of their eyes" and it gets embarrassing, not to say dangerous. I have a dinky little car (which gets a million miles to the gallon) with dinky tires. So I can get tires for $30. At those prices, I shouldn't be so tightfisted as to ask if retreads would be cheaper. But I (ahem) began to think about the environment and recycling.

Being a bit of a provocateur, I asked slyly whether retreads are safe. Yeah, came the answer, but they don't make sense pricewise on such a dinky car. For a real car or a van or 4x4, the salesman said, you save 50% and the performance is the same. "Well," I said, slightly miffed, "what about all that cast-off rubber tread I see lying along the road on the Ventura Freeway?"

He didn't miss a beat. "That's what happens when you drive like you do--no tread and under-inflated. And when you do bad patch jobs on your own tires. You're also wasting gas, you know. You are mismatched and even a regular tire won't hold together the way you've been driving."

This wasn't doing anything for my ego, but by then I was aware that I was on to a good story. So I bought the new tires on special and drove off in a good mood. Then I found in John Javna's "50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth" that underinflated tires waste oceans of gasoline--2 million gallons a year. One gallon out of every 20 we put in the tank.

When I got home, I called around and discovered a trade organization that represents both the new and retread tire industries to get some more information.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always knew that a retreaded tire was a recycled tire. But the safety worry kept me from buying one. I should have looked into this earlier. The safety problem, according to the experts I contacted, was solved years ago.

The parties who picked up on this in a timely fashion were the racing car drivers, jet-fighter ground crews and the off-road vehicle drivers. Then fleet delivery trucks and municipal motor pool vehicles also took up using retreads.

The short explanation, according to Oxnard retreader Warren Vandenhuevel: "There's not a whole lot of guesswork now with the modern cold process technology. Failure is a rarity." My own research got me a figure of 3%. Which turns out to be the same for new tires.

Folks have switched because of the price differential, of course. With regular cars, it comes to about 30% less and for trucks 50%. In fleet operations, retreads account for about a third of purchases. Many civilians are alternating--buying a pair of retreads, then a pair of new--and so on, potentially cutting their rubber landfill dumping by half.

But last week, addressing the Environmental Protection Agency in New York, Harvey Brodsky of the Tire Retread Information Bureau looked at retreads from another perspective. With his calculator, he translated last year's retread sales into the language of oil. It seems that it takes a manufacturer seven gallons of oil to make one tire. Retreading the casing later takes 2 1/2 gallons. All told, this means that the use of retreads saved the United States about 400 million gallons of oil last year.

Vandenhuevel's shop, Santa Maria Tire Co., is part of a countrywide chain, Bandag, that has an inspection system for keeping local retreaders' standards high. When you visit a shop, ask for retreads that have been made through the low temperature process. If you have any questions, there's an 800 number, which Brodsky's organization operates. They will tell you, among other things, the nearest A-rated retread plant. Maybe to boost business in this time of heightened ecological awareness (and eco-marketing), they should call their product recycled tires. It would be truth in advertising.


* Santa Maria Tire Co., Oxnard. Call 642-0174.

* National Tire Dealers and Retreaders Assn. (for A-rated retread plant locations) (800) 876-8272.

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