Saturday, November 10, 2007

Where'd My Tires Go?

Monday I replaced the tires on my car. They were all-weather tires that had come with the car from the factory in the summer of 2002, and were going bald and cracked. Since my car's a four-wheel-drive, I replaced all four.

But as my daughter and I had walked by the open garage, piled high with tires, she'd marvelled. Look at all those. Yeah, there were a lot, but I've seen more simply dumped in piles here and there across the landscape. My biggest reluctance in tire replacement was not price, it was waste. What the hell was going to happen to my, and everybody's, old tires? If there are miles-long rafts of plastic bags floating in the Pacific Ocean, are there tire buttes, mountains, jetties? The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) says that industry and EPA estimates suggest an average of one waste tire per year generated by each person in the U.S.. Seriously, where are they gonna go?

So I asked. I made a pretense of linking my query to understanding the bill: so there's a $2.00 disposal fee for each tire? Uh-huh. So... what happens to them?

"I have no idea," said the young guy taking my check, in a conversation that was beginning to turn familiar.

Surely he must have some idea. He works there, for god’s sake. “Like, do they just get landfilled? Do they get recycled somehow?”

“They go to a tire disposal place up in Polson. I have no idea what they do with them after that.”

Well, okay. That’s someplace to start.

Here’s what a little research was able to turn up regarding the tire disposal place up in Polson and what they might do there. They don’t have their own website, so this is a sketchy description cobbled from a number of sources.

First of all, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) gives some general information about what happens to waste tires in the state (emphases mine).

Montana does not ban tires from landfills or require that tires be cut up before disposal. Economics result in the majority of Montana's waste tires being disposed of in landfills. Long travel distances to waste tire markets means landfilling is usually less expensive than alternatives.

[…] The Rasmussen Tire site near Kalispell, Tires for Reclamation near Silesia (Billings), and The Tire Depot near Polson are privately operated Class 3 monofills (tires only) and these operators are required to keep records of tires buried or recycled.

The 1998 Environmental Quality Council's 'Status of and Alternatives for the Management of Waste Tires in Montana: Report to the 56th Legislature', reported that those three monofill sites alone accounted for a total of 174,497 or nearly 51% of the waste tires reported to the DEQ as having been disposed of or recycled in 1997.

From a table in the DEQ’s 1998 report mentioned above, I learn that Tire Depot Recovery, the Polson one, accepted 45,500 tires for disposal in 1997. 19,500 were accepted for recycling.

And what does “recycling” mean, for the minority of tires (perhaps a larger proportion these nine years later) that are actually recycled, up in Polson? It’s certainly a reassuring word, and the Polson facility has been praised highly over the past years, for instance, by our local opposition to a proposed tire incineration plant from Swiss corporation Holcim. Don’t burn the tires and send all kinds of nasty toxins into our air! Send them to Polson!

Montana does have a tire recycler that converts tires into useful products: Vern Reum of Polson, MT. Reum’s operation shreds tires and produces products with several different uses. He is in the process of qualifying for a low-cost economic development loan to buy a tire crumber so that he can expand his business.

In October 2003, though, Vern Reum had testified to the Montana Environmental Quality Council that not enough tires were being recycled in Montana to make recycling economically feasible, so at that time they were sending tires to Canada to be shredded, after which the product was shipped back to Montana for sale. He talked about plans to build a local plant to do this, a process which involves freezing the tires with nitrogen and then pulverizing them. Has that plant been built? I’ve had trouble telling. I found no reports of it; yet the 2006 article quoted just above says he “shreds tires” and the MT 2005 Guide for Buying Recycled Products lists the Tire Depot: “Shreds used tires to produce steel-free fill material. Can also provide crumb-rubber overs for horse arenas and playgrounds.”

So, the actual recycling (=shredding) process either takes place in Canada or has newly begun to occur right on site in Polson. The recycled product is basically… shredded-up rubber. With its many uses. Like fill.

There are some problems even with posing the above plan as an alternative to incineration: Vern Reum’s operation once caught fire in 2001, causing a fairly serious air- and water-quality crisis.

The business has been operating at the location for 14 years, he said. The plant shreds used tires to be recycled as road base, construction backfill and other uses. […]

The fire was contained to an enormous pit where the tires were shredded and stored.* Fire personnel estimated the size of the pit at approximately 400 yards wide and long. It was filled with tires and shredded tires to a depth of at least 40 to 50 feet, they said.

"Millions of tires," said Glenn Reum, Vern Reum's brother. "There are millions of tires in there. He's been hauling them from tire shops all over Washington, Oregon and Idaho. He's the only licensed tire recycler in the state of Montana."

*(Yes, this is a 2001 story, before the Tire Depot apparently had the capacity to shred its own tires. Sigh.)

None of this is to say that I oppose tire recycling, nor that I’m in favor of Holcim’s nasty incinerator, potentially only twenty minutes’ drive away. But there’s no simple, feel-good way to dispose of these big, heavy, flammable objects, of which we Americans produce hundreds of millions per year. Knowing this may help us consider our choices better: buy higher-quality, longer-lasting tires, for instance. Remember to rotate them. Drive less.

It took an awful lot of work for me to figure out even this much about what happened to my tires after I paid some men to take them off my car, then paid two dollars extra, per tire, for them to conveniently disappear. Even the men I paid didn’t know what became of them thereafter. Imagine the difference between this culture of invisible supply/invisible waste (who knows where our meat comes from or where tires go to die?) and a culture in which the whole material chain, from origin to waste disposal, could be transparent—in which business workers and customers might regularly discuss the histories of products prior to sale and their ultimate post-use fates. The repercussions would be huge, and much of the difference might simply rest on which questions are perceived as weird to ask.

I’m shy; it’s hard for me to ask weird questions and get funny looks from strangers. But I’m doing it anyway; the alternative is tacit acceptance of this unnatural universe of disconnected phenomena, where the objects I use appear out of nowhere and go back into nowhere when I’m through with them. I eat anonymous beef and don’t know how my city’s water treatment plant works; I drive on anonymous rubber which can be replaced, for money, without my ever seeing what’s been discarded. There were tires on my car when I dropped it off (one flat); there were different tires on it when I picked it up, none flat. Transaction accomplished. Snap-your-fingers magic.

The thing is, times are coming—or already here—when we need to make major changes to our supply chains and waste management to survive. This kind of magic is exactly what will render us helpless to save ourselves. Witnessing such sleights of hand every day, we expect miracles.

Time to start feeling around inside the magician's hat.


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