Lockport Industry Turning Old Tires into New Jobs

Jul 2, 2020 | News

LOCKPORT, NEW YORK – Production is underway at a new “green” industry here, using ground-up tires to make products ranging from parking lot bumpers to speed bumps.

Rubberform Recycled Products is investing $1.3 million and taking advantage of incentive programs from the state, the City of Lockport and the New York Power Authority to create jobs in a vacant warehouse at 75 Michigan St. President Bill Robbins said the company’s goal is to employ 10 people and produce 1.5 million pounds of recycled rubber goods in the first year. After three years, the targets are 3.75 million pounds of products and 30 jobs, he said.

Robbins hired George McNamara of North Tonawanda, the former model shop manager at Wilson Greatbatch in Clarence, as the plant manager.

McNamara said the company will be buying “crumb rubber” in 2,000-pound lots from High Tread International, a half-mile away on Ohio Street in Lockport. It costs 14 to 18 cents per pound.

“With High Tread that close to us, we’re going to save half a million dollars in fossil fuel transportation while we’re here,” McNamara said. The contract is a boost to High Tread, which employs 40 workers on two shifts a day grinding up tires hauled in from stores in New York and Pennsylvania, said general manager Rick Johnson.

“Hopefully, [Robbins] will gain an advantage in the market, reduce his freight costs and make competitively priced products,” Johnson said. There are no worries about running out of raw material “with 290 million tires in the United States,” McNamara said. “I think we have 14 million tires in New York State alone that people are putting in landfills. I don’t see a shortage unless people stop buying cars.”

A passenger car tire produces about 17 pounds of crumb rubber, Robbins said. Each crumb is about the size of a grain of rice. Using seven presses acquired from other companies, Rubberform will use heat and pressure to mold its products. Work will start soon after the molds arrive, which will be in about a week or two. To provide heat for the molding process, the company bought a 3 million BTU, gas-fired thermal oil furnace.

“We’re really inventing a lot of equipment here,” Robbins said. “I call myself an innovative entrepreneur. . . . We’re not going to be showing even customers how we do things, because there’s kind of a black art in this business.” A grant from the state’s Environmental Investment Program, a $225,000 loan from the city and an award of 500 kilowatts of low-cost expansion power from the Power Authority were all key factors in getting Rubberform off the ground.

“This is perfect. I wanted to be in the City of Lockport,” Robbins said. “You couldn’t get low-cost power in Monroe County. Buffalo’s a great distribution spot, where we can get good rates to ship from. Plus, there’s a ready, willing and able work force here.”

Among the first hires was Mark Hollingsworth of Buffalo, who used to work at Transpro, which made car heaters at a plant on Niagara Street in Buffalo. “I was there for 11 years, and they packed up and moved to Mexico,” Hollingsworth said. “I just happened to be in the [Lockport] area, and I saw somebody doing something. I popped my head in, and that’s how I met Bill. Just being nosy, that’s all.”

He was hired to clean the machines part time, but Hollingsworth expects full-time work when production starts. While McNamara runs the plant, Robbins will hit the road to sell the products. Don’t look for them in retail stores, though. “We’re going to sell two ways: first, through distribution and [also] through direct sales to large customers who buy on a regular basis, like development companies, or anybody who has a parking lot,” Robbins said.

The optimistic Robbins said he is already making plans for a second phase of the company, in which a system similar to those used in grain elevators would be installed to move the rubber crumbs into the presses.

He said he wants to invest $500,000 on the second phase and $250,000 a year thereafter in new product development. Robbins said he has already talked with the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency about help with the second phase.

McNamara said retail products are a future possibility. “We’re looking at doing something for residential, like garage stops,” McNamara said, “so when you pull into your garage, instead of having a tennis ball hanging there for your wife, she hits something and stops before she goes through the back wall.”