August 26, 2010 @ 6:00 am

If you’re an environmentally conscious consumer, your old tires are either left with the tire replacement shop to be recycled, or taken to an approved landfill or recycling center in your area if you replaced them yourself. Most communities also offer recycling programs that allow homeowners to put tires, batteries and electronics curbside for pickup once or twice a year.

At one time, these used tires tended to pile up, creating a singularly ugly health and safety hazard that encourages breeding mosquitoes, rodents and –when heated by intense summer sun – a source of almost inextinguishable fires (thanks to layers of compacted debris) that can seriously impact air quality.

Fortunately, a combination of advanced technology and an increasing awareness of the environment have led to a plethora of recycling options, some highly commendable, others somewhat peculiar (if no less desirable). For example, I can clearly see the value of tires as bumper guards. Tire art, on the other hand, leaves me frowning.

One of the most common recycling methods involves reducing tires to shreds, or even melting them into their components. As shreds, they can be used as mulch on park paths, walkways and playgrounds, though many people still think tire ingredients (arsenic, lead and zinc) are not a very eco-friendly – or kid-friendly.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, which actually certifies some rubber mulches, disagrees. Not only is the shredded rubber superior to wood mulches, because it reduces the need for a non-renewable resource (wood), but it is highly desirable on playgrounds and in parks because it provides greater safety.

According to Pinnacle Rubber Mulch, which manufactures an IPEMA-certified (International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association) product, a six-inch layer of rubber mulch, or “crumb”, underneath playground equipment will cushion a child’s fall, even from a height of 16 feet, and help prevent some of the 150,000 injuries to children reported each year as a result of playground accidents.

More recently, auto and tire manufacturers are beginning to discover that it’s easier to “build it green” than make it green after the fact. To that end, reports the New York Times Auto column, companies like Michelin are using non-petroleum oils (like sunflower oil) to make tires more biodegradable, while other media resources, like Scrap Tire News Online report on the creative ways tire scrap is being recycled.

Up in Canada, notes, Carbon Green, Inc., a recycling services company,  is checking into pyrolysis (burning in the absence of oxygen) that reduces rubber to carbon black, oil and steel – all three then reused in the manufacture of tires, as well as ink for printer cartridges and the like, oil for fuel, and steel for building.

But pyrolysis is a very dirty job. For those who don’t expect others to do their dirty work, consider using old tires as:

  • Planters
  • Sidewalls and/or backstop for a winter hockey rink or skating rink, or to protect your garage door from teenage drivers
  • Foundation and walls for an “Earthship” (a “green”, or bermed home, per Green Home
  • Erosion control or bank stabilization along a river or lake
  • Retaining walls on very steep banks
  • As bumper padding on a boat dock, or at the end of individual parking spaces against the side of a commercial building

Consumers can also make their tires last longer by checking tires once a week to make sure they are properly inflated (which reduces wear), and rotating tires (front to back, left to right) at intervals to provide for more even wear.

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