With the invention of the automobile came the invention of rubber tires, followed by petroleum-based synthetic rubber tires, then steel-belted radial tires. At each step, these products have become more durable, and more difficult to recycle. With demands for longer-lasting tires, manufacturers answered the call with products that are nearly indestructible today. This is good and bad for the environment. On one hand, increasing the life of tires preserves resources. On the other hand, the indestructible nature of discarded tires makes them live on in the environment indefinitely, creating long-lasting piles of toxic, synthetic waste. Fortunately, there have been positive strides with the creation of recycled rubber tire products such as rubber mulch and recycled rubber pavers from auto tires.
Why Tire Recycling Is Important
It is estimated that 250 million tires are thrown away every year. They cannot be compacted, so disposing of them in landfills is not a satisfactory solution. They are therefore banned from landfills and dump sites. With few options available until recently, many people furtively dumped their old tires in a ditch if the company they bought new tires from wouldn’t accept them. Some companies who did accept them burned them, releasing a billowing black smoke of toxins into the air, including arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium, benzene, dioxins, and many more toxic and carcinogenic substances. The discarded tires that weren’t deliberately burned found their way to empty lots, growing into acres of tire dumps throughout the country.
Tire dumps are more than an eyesore. These stockpiles trap water to provide breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes. The piles of tires can easily catch fire, burning out of control sometimes for many months before subsiding. With each tire containing at least a gallon of oil, tire fires burn extremely hotly, requiring up to 100 gallons of water for each tire in the pile to restrain. These fires have serious and far-reaching effects on the environment including contamination of air, water, and soil. There are serious health risks to firefighters and employees of companies that burn tires.
Environmental Action Taken
California was among the first to act on this environmental nightmare with the 1989 California Tire Recycling Act, mandated to regulate and manage the over 44 million waste tires in the state. Utah passed similar legislation in 1990. In 1991, an amendment to the federal Solid Waste Disposal Act required tire producers and importers to recycle a percentage of old tires each year, with the EPA being charged to establish a system of management and tracking. The action taken by these governmental bodies has proven to be successful as many of the old tire stockpiles are gone. Only 10% of tires were recycled in 1990. Today, more than 80% are recycled in a variety of applications.
Recycled Rubber Pavers
Today, one of the most valuable applications of recycled tires is in recycled rubber pavers that are used for sidewalks, large animal flooring, fitness center flooring, playground tiles, and decorative patios. The pavers are made from tires that are ground into crumbs before being formed into large rubber tiles for city sidewalks and flooring, or into brick-type pavers for decorative patios and walkways. Though they are more costly than concrete, they last three times as long or more. They can also be recycled.
In addition to being a useful solution for disposing of old tires, recycled rubber pavers can help to save trees in urban areas. Concrete sidewalks significantly diminish the water and air supply to tree roots so the roots need to be larger and extend upwards to get the nutrients they need. This cracks the concrete sidewalks, creating a hazard and requiring sidewalk repair or replacement. The seams between the rubber pavers allow water and air to get to the tree roots, and the pavers can be lifted if necessary to maintain the roots.
These eco-friendly pavers are extremely durable and versatile. They offer a slip resistant, cushioned floor that prevents injuries in sporting activities and playgrounds. This flooring is an excellent choice for barns and stables to relieve stress and prevent leg injuries to livestock. The easy-to-install decorative pavers provide those benefits along with being an easily maintained and visually attractive choice for patios and walkways. They also help to prevent the “heat island” effect due to their insulating qualities.
Recycled rubber pavers from auto tires turn the tires that were rolling under you yesterday into the sidewalk you will be walking on tomorrow.
Phillips, Mark, "The Trouble With Tires," Recycling Today.<https://www.p2pays.org/ref/11/10504/html/biblio/html3/prh12.htm>
Waste Tire Program, Utah Department of Environmental Quality, Division of Solid & Hazardous Waste
S.396: This Act may be cited as the Tire Recycling Incentives Act, introduced in the Senate of the United States, One Hundred Second Congress, First Session, February 7, 1991, Energy Storm, Science Citations to Power the World.
Rubber Sidewalks Save DC’s Trees and Residents’ Knees, Environmental Evaluation & Cost-Benefit News. <https://www.envirovaluation.org/index.php/2006/10/02/u_s_environmental_protection_agency_www__23>
Photo Attribution: Tyres.jpg, by pualv from Flickr.