Can old tires be recycled? If so, where, and what is the recycled material used for?
—George, Rockville, MD
Old tires can indeed be recycled, and thanks to concerted efforts by state and provincial governments from coast-to-coast, as many as 80 percent of them are these days across North America. While some of these old tires are remanufactured into new tires, others are used in a wide variety of applications including railroad ties, rubber-modified asphalt, athletic surfaces, insulation, plastic/rubber blends used in a variety of products, even fuel.
The world’s first tires were made entirely out of natural rubber, but the Southeast Asian forests where the plants grew could only produce so much. By World War II most tires were composed primarily of synthetic rubber made from petroleum products. Up until the 1960s, tires were routinely recycled and broken down for use in making new tires. But when imported oil got cheaper, demand for recycled synthetic rubber fell, and caches of old tires with nowhere to go—most landfills won’t accept them—began to sully landscapes across North America. These old tire stockpiles became havens for pests and mosquitoes, and would even occasionally burst into flames and belch noxious chemicals into the air.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, state and provincial governments in the U.S. and Canada led the charge in mandating and funding tire recycling efforts. In doing so they helped spur the markets for reprocessed synthetic rubber that exist today. Now thousands of companies across North America specialize in turning recycled synthetic rubbers into useful new products.
American consumers looking to offload old tires should take a gander at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA”s) “Management of Scrap Tires” website to find tire recycling centers near them. Canadians can turn to the website of the Canadian Association of Tire Recycling Agencies (CATRA) to find out where to take used tires in any province, including even the remote Yukon Territory.
The EPA also offers free Business Planning Guides for those who might be looking to start a tire recycling or re-manufacturing business. The website Scrap Tire News also provides a wealth of knowledge on different ways to get started.
Despite this encouraging progress, North America still faces a backlog of hundreds of millions of old tires, quickly piling up outside filling stations and in backyards near you. The EPA estimates that 290 million scrap tires are generated annually, representing two percent of all solid waste, and that some 265 million are sitting in stockpiles right now. At the very least, we could all take the advice of Participating in Nature: Thomas J. Elpel’s Field Guide to Primitive Living Skills and turn our old tires into “sandals with a 50,000 mile warranty!”