Bridgestone is in an interesting position. On the one hand, the tire manufacturer wants to increase its green credentials with its line of Ecopia products. These are low-rolling resistance tires that improve efficiency by around five or six percent and are now available in 50 sizes that fit everything from hybrids to large SUVs. They're even used on all Nissan Leaf electric vehicles. On top of the Ecopia line, Bridgestone has big goals to reduce CO2 emission from its entire products lifecycle by 35 percent (by sales) and improve tire rolling efficiency by 25 percent by 2020 (compared to 2005 numbers). The company is also researching making tires not just from traditional rubber trees (hevea brasiliensis) but alaso from latex found in a native southwest desert plant, guayule, and Russian dandelions. So, if we look at that hand, the company looks pretty green, right?

The reality is that it's difficult for Bridgestone to make really big changes.

The reality is that it's difficult for Bridgestone to make really big changes. For example, when Bridgestone invited us to visit the future site of its new off-road tire plant in Aiken, SC, we asked if, for example, adding a recycling fee to the sale price of a tire made sense, encouraging more tires to be recycled at the end of life. The problem, we were told, was that competitors might not do that, leaving Bridgestone at a price disadvantage. In short, Bridgestone can lead, but not on everything.

Bridgestone's current Aiken tire plant is a mid-size operation, one that can make up to 25,000 tires a day, in sizes from 15 to 20 inches. At that rate, operating 24-7, the plant uses 1,000 pounds of rubber every minute. Most of the plant's raw rubber – which is the sap from the trees, so someone called it "perhaps the most sustainable part of a car" – comes from Indonesia and Liberia. GM is the biggest customer for the finished products, but Toyota, Honda, Ford, Chrysler and Hyundai all get tires from there. Walking around the plant, you see massive machines (mixers that are three stories tall and require 4,000 horsepower to run, for example) and lots of storage space (425,000 tires can be stored in the attached warehouse). It's a big plant, and an expansion is scheduled to be in operation by 2015 to increase capacity. The big news, though, is the off-road plant that Bridgestone is building just up the road.

This $900-million plant, when it reaches full capacity in 2020, will go through 130 tons of raw rubber every day.

This $900-million plant, when it reaches full capacity in 2020, will go through 130 tons of raw rubber every day as it makes off-road radial tires. These are the huge tires that range in size from 49 to 63 inches. You know the type, the ones used on giant dump trucks and the like. The ones that can be bigger than people. Currently, Bridgestone competes against Michelin in the bignormous tire game and, since all of Bridgestone's off-road tires are made in Japan right now, there's an advantage to be had by making tires in Aiken for the North American market

Who uses these tires? One of Bridgestone's biggest customers for off-road radial tires is Suncor Energy, which drills for oil up in the tar sands of Canada. Bridgestone reps repeatedly called Suncor the "boss" in the customer-provider relationship, alluding to how important the company is in the process. Suncor uses the tires on the mindblowingly giant trucks that haul tons of material around the tar sands grounds. In fact, the tires are so important to Suncor and its efforts to keep oil production running smoothly that Suncor keeps a year's supply of tires on site, Bridgestone reps told us. The tires have an operating life of thousands of hours, but that's still 1,300 tires. And the 63-inch tire costs upwards of $80,000 per tire. So, in case you've ever wondered why oil made from tar sands costs so much more than "regular" oil, well, now you know one factor.

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