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How to Recycle Tires, and What Happens to Them

written by: Steve Graham•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 5/23/2011

Millions of scrap tires are recycled, reused or burned for energy, keeping them out of landfills and dangerous tire piles. Recycling used tires can build roads, playgrounds and generate electricity.

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    How to Recycle Tires

    Americans get rid of about one scrap tire per person per year.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency counted about 290 million new scrap tires in 2003

    That would make for one heck of a tire fire. Thankfully, long-burning and toxic tire fires are becoming blessedly rare outside of the fictional Springfield of “The Simpsons." Even so, plenty of scrap tire piles are stacking up all over the world, creating breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes and vermin. Too many scrap tires still end up in landfills or tire piles when they can easily be reused and recycled.

    How to recycle used tires

    You can typically recycle used tires at tire shops or through local recycling companies. If you pay a tire shop to replace your tires, ask them to recycle the scrap tires. It could add an extra fee (which a dishonest tire shop might not explain upfront), but will give you peace of mind about the scrap tire disposal. Also, try to support shops that recycle all their tires.

    If you replace your own tires, ask local recycling companies if they accept scrap tires. They probably won’t pick them up curbside with your bottles and newspapers, but you might be able to take the scrap tires to their recycling sites. Many companies even offer tire amnesty days, when area residents can drop off a limited number of scrap tires with no fee.

    What happens to recycled tires

    Plenty of scrap tire recycling and reuse options are available for these companies. Scrap tires can be burned for fuel, shredded for road-building, retreaded and reused or ground down to produce recycled rubber mulch for commercial products. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each method?

    • Tire-derived fuel: The Rubber Manufacturers Association estimates nearly half of all scrap tires are burned for fuel in factories and power plants. It is by far the largest use of scrap tires. It’s technically not used tire recycling because no new product is created. However, it is a practical byproduct of disposing scrap tires.

    Cement kilns, paper mills and electric plants all burn either whole or shredded scrap tires . The process diverts millions of tires from tire piles and helps reduce the need for fossil fuels, but it brings its own problems.

    Tire rubber can produce as much energy as oil, about 25 percent more energy than coal and double the energy of burned wood. Even with the required emissions controls, however, the tire combustion releases greenhouse gases and noxious substances. The output is cleaner than that of coal and some other fossil fuels, but it is still problematic.

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    More Uses for Scrap Tires

    Road-building: According to the RMA, 39 U.S. states shred scrap tires and use them in roads and other civil engineering projects. This accounts for 20 percent of scrap tire usage, and is the most widespread form of true used tire recycling. Scrap tire rubber is a cheap, lightweight product used to fill underneath roads where bogs, clay or other weak soils that cause civil engineering headaches.

    Shredded scrap tires are also useful in sound walls, bridge foundations and, ironically, landfill construction. Scrap tires saved from the landfill can be shredded and used in liners, daily covers and other parts of the complex internal workings of a landfill.

    • Ground rubber: Instead of shredding scrap tires, some companies take used tire recycling one step further, essentially grinding the tires into tiny rubber pebbles for construction usage.

    The U.S. Department of Transportation and many U.S. states are studying rubberized asphalt, or ground rubber mixed with traditional asphalt. California, Arizona and Florida widely use the material, making it the largest use of ground rubber from scrap tires. Other states have been slower to adopt the technology despite USDOT research showing rubberized asphalt lasts longer, creates lower road noise and requires shorter stopping distances.

    Ground rubber is also used for patio decks, running tracks and the squishy but solid black surface that’s popular in school and park playgrounds.

    One drawback to ground rubber from scrap tires is that scrap tires from tire piles often cannot be used because of contamination concerns, especially when making playground surfaces and decking.

    Retreads: Finally, scrap tires can be recycled into new tires. They are called retreads, and they are widely used in trucking and on airplanes. The Tire Retread and Repair Information Bureau said retreads are just as safe as new tires, but a public stigma about retreads keeps their usage fairly low.

    Not all tires can be retreaded. They must be thoroughly inspected for damage, aging and manufacturing defects. A large number of tires must be discarded, which is why all these technologies listed above are so important.

    Whether they end up in your power plant, playground or in new tires, recycle your tires for the environment’s sake.