Tony Wibbeler, founder and CEO of Boulder Industries, is a very busy man. On this day in early May, he’s briefly back home in Boulder, Colorado, before jetting off on a multi-city European business trip, for which he’s just finished arranging the extremely complicated travel itinerary himself. But DIY is nothing new to Wibbeler. He’s the founder and CEO of Colorado-based Bolder Industries, maker of the game-changing Bolder Black, a closed-loop and environmentally beneficial alternative to traditionally manufactured carbon black.
If you’re like most people, you’ve never heard of carbon black. But it’s all around you. Every single piece of black plastic or rubber – from your office chair’s arm to inkjet toner to your car’s tires – contains it. Traditionally produced by the incomplete combustion of heavy petroleum products, carbon black is most commonly used as a pigment and reinforcing agent in automobile and truck tires. It helps conduct heat away from the tread and belt area of the tire, which reduces thermal damage and increases tire life.
Raw material for Bolder Black
Unfortunately, the virgin carbon black manufacturing process creates a lot of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. Its production is classified by the EPA as one of the top five most polluting industries in the nation. 3.2 billion pounds of carbon black, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, enters our world every year. The U.S. imports 1.5 billion pounds of that annually. At the same time, the U.S. disposes of about 350 million tires each year, with most of those being incinerated for fuel or tossed into landfills.
Wibbeler is out to change all this. Bolder Industries is part of a worldwide effort to build a new industry that can tackle tire recycling. In North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America, similar companies are working together to build an entirely new environmentally friendly industry.
It all started in 2007, when Wibbeler was part of a small private equity group that bought three landfills and placed recycling centers on top of them. “The first thing I learned was that traditional recycling methods leave a lot to be desired. They are incredibly water-intensive and energy-intensive. And they are not the most favorable to emissions..” Wibbeler found that even with an 87% recycling rate, he was only reducing how much waste was going to landfills by 18 to 22%.
So he started thinking about hydrocarbons, hydrocarbon chains, what was in the waste, and what he could do with it. He landed on tires as a starting point. “I don’t care how many electric cars you buy, you’re still going to put tires on them. We create a tremendous amount of tires.”
The result? A non-combustion technology that extracts the resources from waste tires and reuses 98% of the materials, creating Bolder Black while emitting 90% less CO2e, and using 90% less water than traditional carbon black production processes. His manufacturing facility in Missouri is net energy positive. The environmental upsides are enormous: “If we’re successful in our five-year plan, we’ll triple the greenhouse gas emission reductions of a leading EV manufacturer over the same time period,” says Wibbeler.
Bolder Industries is a certified B-Corporation with 30 employees. It sells the rubber and steel extracted from tires to recyclers, and the extracted gas powers the manufacturing facility. Bolder Black is milled, pelletized and sold to everyone from roof tile makers to tire manufacturers. In certain products, some properties of Bolder Black are measurably superior. Even Patagonia is on board, with Hub Hubbard, who manages wetsuit development, saying “This is exactly the kind of next step we are looking for.”
And the benefits of Bolder Black are more than environmental. At the first Bolder Industries plant in Maryville, Missouri, there’s now something the town was sorely lacking: good, well-paying, secure jobs with health benefits so that families can thrive.
With plans for more production plants across the country – and around the world – Wibbeler has his feet planted firmly on the Front Range of Colorado. Why? “Cleantech in Colorado is humble and thoughtful. There are so many organizations to help support and guide you. And there’s a lot of focus on bringing more money into it – Aravaipa Ventures is a great example of that. But more than anything, the lifestyle, the opportunities and the energy in Colorado attract the best talent in the world to come here and work on our project.”
And that’s no small thing, because Bolder Industries has big plans.