Used Tires: Reuse, Recycle, Retread
Approximately 290 million automobile and truck used tires are discarded by Americans every year.
Since 1989, when only 10 percent of scrap tires were recycled or reused, the United States significantly increased its tire reclamation efforts to slightly more than 81 percent. However, the 55 million tires (19 percent) not reclaimed are being thrown into landfills or, even worse, disposed of illegally on roadsides and properties around the country.
Perhaps you've driven by a tire graveyard, where hundreds or even thousands of tires create not only an eyesore but public health and safety hazards as well. Discarded tires are convenient breeding grounds for mosquitoes and rodents, which carry a host of diseases, including West Nile virus, encephalitis, dengue fever, and hanta virus. Tire piles attract children, who can injure themselves playing among them. Scrap tires in landfills can also damage the landfill linings that have been installed to help keep surface and groundwater free from landfill contaminants.
Another problem with discarded used tires is the risk of fire: tire pile fires can smolder for weeks and months, releasing extremely toxic pollutants into the air, creating serious respiratory and other health problems for people in the vicinity and many miles away. Runoff water from such fires are also laden with toxins, which can contaminate water supplies. In 1999, a tire fire in Westley, California, ignited by lightning, burned for 30 days. The fire produced large amounts of pyrolitic oil that not only contaminated a nearby stream but also ignited and caused additional pollution problems. In 1983, a seven-million tire fire in Rhinehart, Virginia, burned for nine months and polluted water supplies with arsenic and lead.
The good news is that more than 81 percent of scrap tires in the United States are being reclaimed in various ways. In 2009 (latest stats available from the Rubber Manufacturers Association scrap tire summary updated 2013), the reclamation statistics looked like this, based on percentage of total tons of tires generated per year:
In addition to the 290 million scrap tires, 16.5 million used tires are given new temporary life as retreads. Eventually these tires will be disposed of as well.
Why not make new tires from the old? Because of safety issues, new tires must be manufactured primarily from virgin rubber, with recycled rubber making up only 5 to 15 percent of the finished product. That leaves much scrap rubber for other uses, as noted above.
I Did This!
There are two main ways you can help keep used tires out of the landfills: delay your need to replace your tires, and make sure your old tires are recycled properly when you do buy new ones.
How to Delay Replacement
How to Recycle Responsibly
With your help, the reclamation of used tires in the United States can thrive and improve, until the day we can also reclaim the nearly 20 percent of scrap tires now being dumped. Better yet, we can hope for a day when tires are replaced by a more environmentally friendly product.
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