by Eric Peterson on May 16, 2017, 12:38 pm MDT
Industry: Energy & Enviro
Products: Recycled carbon black (Bolder Black)
By rethinking tire disposal, CEO Tony Wibbeler plans to shake up supply chains for manufacturers all over the world in the process.
Wibbeler was previously president of a waste-management company in Florida. Recycling rates were notably high, he says, but the company was unable to divert even half as much as the amount of material that was being recycled. “There was a lot of value in material that had no home,” says Wibbeler.
An avid skier and mountain biker, Wibbeler relocated to Colorado in 2012 to build a company with a mission “to divert more material from landfills than any other effort in the history of the world,” he says.
In launching Bolder Industries, Wibbeler considered eight different waste streams, and evaluated them based on environmental impact, marketability, and other factors. He ultimately landed on discarded tires. “Tires have a massive issue of disposal,” he says.
When you break tires down into their base components, you get three things: oil, steel, and carbon black. “That was thought of as the waste product,” says Wibbeler of the last of the three. “It turns out that material can be reused back into the plastic and rubber industry as a replacement for virgin carbon black.”
It’s a pretty anonymous — albeit massive — market. “Nobody knows anything about it,” says Wibbeler. “The market is massive. We’re importing 1.5 billion pounds a year.”
In all, domestic industry uses about 4 billion pounds of carbon black a year. Beyond tires, it’s used in a wide range of products. “If it’s black and it’s plastic, it’s got carbon black in it,” says Wibbeler.
At its Maryville, Missouri plant, Bolder Industries reduces waste tires to steel, oil, and recycled carbon black — a.k.a. Bolder Black — via a patented process. The Bolder Black is attractive to manufacturers of everything from tires to wetsuits to roofing materials — essentially any user of carbon black.
Manufacturing virgin carbon black is typically anything but green. “It’s an environmentally challenging product,” says Wibbeler. “It’s made from the worst level of crude oil. It’s the stuff nobody wants and they burn it. The soot that’s left over is carbon black.” Conversely, the Bolder Industries process has “a fraction of the environmental impact” and reduces water consumption and carbon emission by 90 percent.
And that’s just on the production side. The U.S. throws about 300 million tires into landfills and noxious fires every year. “If you just take a tire and chip it up, it still had all of its volatiles in it,” says Wibbeler. Michelin, Goodyear, and other tire manufacturers “are paying attention to what happens to their tires,” he adds. “They’re worried about it.”
That’s where Bolder Industries enters the picture. Wibbeler says he plans to increase the Maryville plant’s annual tire capacity from 1 million to 3 million, enough to absorb all of the tires disposed in metro Kansas City. “That’s where the economies of scale tip — at 3 million tires a year,” he says. “Beyond that, you might as well build another plant.”
As 3 million tires translates into about 20 million pounds of Bolder Black, numerous plants would be necessary to fill market demand. Wibbeler says one prospective customer “uses 75 million pounds of carbon black in their products. That’s one client. Each one of our plants could be anchored by one customer.”
After “very small amounts of revenue” in 2016, the Maryville plant “is 85 percent sold out right now,” says Wibbeler. “This is going to be a big stabilization year for us.”
Through 2018, Bolder Industries will build its customer base as it improves efficiencies and looks for partners to build additional recycling facilities. The business model calls for a partner, possibly a customer, to build the facility, and Bolder Industries has prospects in Taiwan. Additional plants in Europe and Australia are also possibilities. “We design the projects and own a piece of them,” says Wibbeler.
He says a Colorado plant is a “dream,” but he needs local customers. “There are certainly enough tires,” he says. “We need a local customer to buy the Bolder Black. Local means within 1,000 miles.”
Challenges: Integrating into the existing supply chains of potential manufacturing customers. “Our biggest challenge right now is product development,” says Wibbeler. “It is a lot of work for people to make raw materials changes. We’re getting through it.”
Opportunities: While tire manufacturers are the biggest potential market for Bolder Industries, Wibbeler says that the company needs five years to scale production to meet demand. Tires for agriculture equipment could start using Bolder Black before 2020.
“Construction and automotive are in general big opportunities,” says Wibbeler. “The big markets are belts, tubes, hoses, and construction materials like rubber roofing.” He cites outdoor apparel as another fertile space for Bolder Black.
Needs: Capital. Wibbeler says the target is “a small round with strategic investors.” He cites Walmart as the “holy grail” for the company in this regard as one of the largest tire-disposal companies in the U.S. “We need strategic investors to build plants,” he says. “We need physical capital and human capital. We’re going to add some product development folks.”
Another need: “Customers. We can’t get enough customers.”