Never tire of recycling – tires

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One of the mantras for waste reduction and energy efficiency is the “reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan, which indicates the order of preference for resource conservation: It’s best to use fewer things in the first place, but once you got ‘em you may as well reuse them. In the end, though, it’s better they get recycled than chucked in a landfill.

Tire dump in California, 1972. Prior to 1990, only about 25% of discarded tires were recycled. Photo: US EPA

Tire dump in California, 1972. Prior to 1990, only about 25% of discarded tires were recycled. Photo: US EPA

Not all products fall neatly into this hierarchy, though. Being round, an automobile tire should be a poster-child for the idea that what comes around should go around as many times as possible. One problem is that the customers most eager to reuse the estimated nearly 300 million car and truck tires that Americans discard each year are mosquitoes. And that fact that tough, durable construction is what defines a good tire makes recycling them a special challenge. 

Student volunteer and research technician collect mosquito larvae from old tires at a state park. Photo: USDA

Student volunteer and research technician collect mosquito larvae from old tires at a state park. Photo: USDA

Early on, it was recognized that a discarded tire was a mosquito farm. So in the old days it was common to provide a dead tire with a shallow grave and call it good enough. But on average, a buried tire is 75% air space, so if it is not very deep it becomes perfect for the young rat couple or yellow-jacket queen looking for a nice starter home. 

When tires were sent to landfills, one issue was that they could not be compacted, and were therefore a waste of space. Yet another problem is that they rose from the dead, becoming methane-filled and wriggling their way to the surface. 

In 2004, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) wrapped up a statewide survey of tire dumps, and found 95 sites having a grand total of 29 million tires. Since then, more sites have been located, but the overall numbers of tires are slowly dropping due in part to a 2003 amendment to the Environmental Conservation Law called the Waste Tire Management and Recycling Act. This is the Act which requires garages to charge you a fee for proper tire disposal. 

The bulk of tires are recycled in the U.S for fuel. But increasingly, crumb rubber from recycled tires is used for many other purposes. Here it coats concrete at a municipal swimming facility in Toronto.<a href-"https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Urbeach-high-park-splashpad.jpg">Glogger</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The bulk of tires are recycled in the U.S for fuel. But increasingly, crumb rubber from recycled tires is used for many other purposes. Here it coats concrete at a municipal swimming facility in Toronto.Glogger, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Prior to 1990, only about 25% of discarded tires were recycled, but these days the number is up around 80%, which is below the 95% rate found in Europe, but still a vast improvement. More than half of our recycled tires are used as fuel, mostly by industries such as cement kilns and steel mills. Tires are also shredded or ground, and the crumb-rubber added to asphalt or concrete for road construction, imparting resiliency and shock-absorption to highway surfaces. Shredded rubber is used in playgrounds under swings and play structures to cushion falls.

In recent years, ground rubber has been marketed as a mulch option for landscapers and homeowners. This seemed like a perfect end-use for recycled tires, but some researchers are questioning the wisdom of rubber mulch. According to Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, an Associate Professor at the Puyallup Research and Extension Center at Washington State University, the toxicity of the rubber is a real concern, especially if it is used near vegetable crops.

In one of her published papers, Dr. Chalker-Scott has stated that “Part of the toxic nature of rubber leachate is due to its mineral content: aluminum, cadmium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, sulfur, and zinc. Of these minerals, rubber contains very high levels of zinc – as much as 2% of the tire mass. A number of plant species, including landscape materials, have been shown to accumulate abnormally high levels of zinc sometimes to the point of death.”

The paper notes that in addition to metals, shredded rubber releases organic chemicals which are “highly persistent in the environment and very toxic to aquatic organisms.” It concludes that:

“It is abundantly clear from the scientific literature that rubber should not be used as a landscape amendment or mulch. There is no question that toxic substances leach from rubber as it degrades, contaminating the soil, landscape plants, and associated aquatic systems. While recycling waste tires is an important issue to address, it is not a solution to simply move the problem to our landscapes and surface waters.” 

 You can help reduce the number of dead tires in the world by regularly rotating your vehicle tires and keeping them inflated properly, and by having your vehicle aligned as recommended in the owner’s manual. 

More information on waste tires from NYSDEC.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.



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