Tired of it: The ugly truth about waste tires

Tired of it: The ugly truth about waste tires
Tires dumped outside the property. (Source: Cindy Wonderful)

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - They are ugly.

They are toxic to the environment.

They are mosquito and rodent breeding grounds.

Discarded vehicle tires (waste tires) are scattered around every inch of the United States, from the city to the countryside, they are everywhere.

Why?

Think about the tires on your car. How much space do those four tires take up if you stack them up? Now imagine six million tires stacked up. That’s how many waste tires are generated every year... in Louisiana. In the United States, the total reaches over 300 million.

“In my five years in this particular position, the most headaches I’ve gotten by far is from this [waste tire] program,” said Elliott Vega, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Environmental Services at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

When you get new tires put on your car, you’ll see a fee for disposing of your old tires. Nothing is free, not even trash. That’s because disposing of tires is not cheap.

“The money collected goes to the waste tire fund,” Vega explained.

The bulk of that money goes to the permitting possessors, of which there are currently six.

“The program manages the lion’s share of the tires,” he added.

The tire processors periodically go to the permitted businesses and take the tires to a processing facility. The final product is tire chips, which can be sold for various purposes.

Fees for the tire waste program are set by the Louisiana Legislature.
Fees for the tire waste program are set by the Louisiana Legislature. (Source: Department of Environmental Quality)

Cheating the system

With five tires loaded in the back of her truck, Cindy Wonderful makes the trip across the Mississippi River Bridge from her property in Old South Baton Rouge to Environmental Industries Recycling Inc. in Port Allen. It’s a trip she’s taken several times this past year.

“I have about 220 right now,” she explains.

She wanted some of the tires, but not that many.

“If you look around Baton Rouge, there are discarded tires everywhere, so I thought, ‘oh, this is a fantastic way to clean up the neighborhood and to get some free materials to create my garden beds.”

Along with a community garden, her property, 1439 Myrtle Walk, will become the home of an art collaborative called Wonderground. The goal is to take the once vacant and blighted building and turn it into a sanctuary for creative expression.

But first, what to do with all those tires?

“I’ve gotten rid of about 100 of them already through the help of a lot of people who have volunteered to take them to Port Allen, or use them to upcycle them for their own purposes.”

She was saddled with the responsibility of disposing of them after they were dumped on her property by an individual who gave her more than she bargained for.

“I told him I don’t need any more tires, I’m done.”

He didn’t stop. In fact, she had to put up a barrier to prevent more tires from being left on the property.

“I got a citation from blight court, which I totally respect blight court, because of course nobody wants to see this in their neighborhood. It attracts mosquitos, it’s not pretty, it’s bad. So, I had to move fast and get rid of all these tires.”

This story was one that didn’t surprise Vega because illegal tire dumping is far too common.

“Normally what we will see, someone comes along with a trailer of tires and they pick out the ones they can sell, but then they’re left with ones that are no good. If you go through legal channels to get rid of them, then it’s expensive.”

With no eyes watching the property at the beginning of the pandemic, the Wonderground property became the victim of that exact scenario.

She’s worked with the agencies to try and find solutions to the problem.

“I don’t have the money to get rid of it. I’ve contacted DEQ. I’ve contacted the Mayor’s Office. I’ve contacted a lot of people and no one has been able to offer a solution. I can do a one-day cleanup which would cost about a $1,000, or I could do 5 tires a day for .50 over in Port Allen, which is a long drive and I’m only off two days a week.

Ultimately, there doesn’t seem to be a good solution.

“There was the best of intentions with this program,” Vega said.

Stuck in a loop

Modern tire waste management programs are built on foundations set decades ago.

“In the mid-1970s a number of research projects were funded by EPA and other government agencies to evaluate alternative technologies relying on scrap tires as inputs.”

This comes from a study funded by the EPA in 1985. That report was completed, however, because little resulted from the initial research.

“None of these studies included other environmental or health costs such as tire fires or disease from mosquitoes,” it notes. “To date, the impact of this research on government policy has been minimal, due in large part to greater concern over hazardous waste disposal and declining energy prices.”

Government funding was provided, and laws were created. But all of this is based off the foundation that there is a market for the tire chips being produced by the processors.

“If they don’t have a place to market it to, they won’t pick up tires and then you see the tire dealers getting creative,” Vega explained.

As the years go by, the problem doesn’t get smaller. In fact, the actual size of the problem has grown as tire sizes continue to get bigger.

“It costs more to shred them,” Vega said.

Some of the uses of tire chips include:

  • Tire derived fuel applications
  • Lightweight backfill in gas venting systems
  • Bulkheads and septic system drain fields
  • Landfill leachate collection systems in new cell construction
  • Ground rubber applications (including asphalt/sealants, mulch and recreational surfaces
  • Civil engineering applications

“It would be wonderful if you could burn them for energy, but they create a lot of emissions,” which creates an even bigger problem than the tires.

Time to get creative

Major tire manufacturers are exploring ways of creating tires from materials that will be more sustainable.

According to Tire Review, the global green tire market is estimated to encompass roughly 38% of the tire industry as a whole. Public interest, consumer education, and government regulations are pushing the growth of this portion of the industry.

A traditional tire is composed of the following:

  • 19% Natural rubber, usually from trees in Southeast Asia
  • 38% Synthetic ­rubber (butadiene, styrene, halobutyl rubber) and additives, to prevent damage from ozone and oxygen, and to promote curing
  • 4% Synthetic-­polymer fabric belts (nylon, rayon, and aramid), for reinforcement
  • 12% Wire (high-carbon steel), for ­more reinforcement
  • 26% Fillers (carbon black, silica)

The goal is to think outside that formula.

Goodyear recently unveiled a concept tire that would regenerate its tred as needed. Imagine a world without flat tires or low tire pressure.

Michelin released its concept tire three years ago. It’s airless, connected, rechargeable, customizable, and organic.

Using organic materials is essential because current tires take far too long to degrade, and when they do, they release some toxic materials into the ground.

What you can do

The best thing you can do as a consumer is to consume less and know more about what you’re buying when you make those purchases.

Until you purchase an airless tire, it is important to make sure you’re putting the proper amount of air in your tires. This will keep them functional longer, and the longer they’re on your car, the less amount of time they spend in a landfill, or worse.

This next step, well, it’s not going to appeal to many. Rather than trusting someone else to do it, do it yourself, meaning you should bring your old tires to a proper disposal center. This includes any tires you see in your neighborhood.

It’s not your responsibility to clean up someone else’s mess, but disposing of tires you see improperly disposed of will also go a long way to fixing the problem. Where you just see something unsightly on the side of the road, someone else might see an opportunity to make life easier by dumping their own tires in the same spot. Then you have a dumping sight.

Also, be a watchdog for your neighborhood. You can report illegally dumped tires to the Single Point of Contact (SPOC) Hotline at (225) 219-3640 Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. You can call Toll Free in Louisiana at 1-888-763-5424.

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