Watchdog report: Tire trouble knows
Allegedly recycled tires often end
up being exported or dumped
When rains pound Tijuana, thousands
of tires fill the torrents of sewage
and trash that stream north across
the international border.
Most of the tires are from California,
where residents pay more than $60
million a year for safe disposal
and recycling. Still, countless numbers
land in Mexico through legal and
Federal and California waste officials
blame each other, poor research and
financial constraints for the cross-border
An investigation by The San Diego
Union-Tribune has found they aren’t
doing nearly enough to fix a problem
that mainly affects middle-class
and low-income residents who live
far from most of the decision-makers.
“It’s a lot easier to point the finger
at Mexico, which doesn’t solve the
problem at all,” said Oscar Romo,
who teaches urban studies at the
University of California San Diego.
Through interviews and documents,
the Union-Tribune identified many
flaws in the system. They include:
San Diego County’s lack of a
tire-recycling facility, even
though tire disposal problems
have been known for at least
A state tire-recycling fund
that has grown to $42 million
while potential solutions lack
California’s ban against spending
tire-recycling money in Mexico,
even when such funding ultimately
would benefit the state by
reducing tire piles that fuel
large fires or become breeding
grounds for mosquitoes.
Ineffective rules targeting
illegal tire exports from California
and spotty enforcement of those
rules that leave regulators
fuzzy about how many tires
are sent to Mexico.
Both the United States and Mexican
governments could devote more resources
to the tire issue, said Christina
Buchanan at San Diego’s Local Enforcement
Agency, which regulates solid waste
in the city.
“Millions of waste tires...are accumulating
along the Mexican border because
of inadequate infrastructure for
their regulation, recycling or disposal,”
California residents discard an average
of more than one tire per person
each year – about 44 million in all.
Roughly three-quarters of those tires
go toward what regulators call productive
uses, such as making rubberized asphalt,
creating erosion-control products
or covering landfill garbage. This
recycling rate is more than twice
what it was in 1990, but it is much
lower than the national rate of 87
The remaining 11 million tires a
year are destined for dumps, vacant
lots or illegal export.
Air-pollution rules and public opposition
to tire burning have limited California’s
ability to reuse tires as fuel. Nationwide,
about half of the discarded tires
become feedstock for industrial boilers
and similar uses.
Many old tires from San Diego County
are hauled to Los Angeles County
for recycling, only to be trucked
back through the region to Baja,
California for legal or unlicensed
Tires from the United States are
valued because they tend to have
more tread left on them than old
tires used only in Mexico.
Californians send about 800,000 tires
annually to Mexico through legal
channels. Waste experts suspect that
hundreds of thousands more are exported
“People know that they can get a
good price for them in Mexico. Apparently,
they are not that hard to smuggle,”
She singled out Otay Mesa, where
auto-dismantling shops routinely
hand off tires to shadowy figures
who skirt the law by taking small
loads to Mexico. California only
requires registration and other documentation
from people who transport 10 or more
tires, a provision that Buchanan
said benefits illegal haulers.
She and other regulators inspect
tire-handling and hauling businesses
to see whether they are meeting codes.
State waste officials acknowledge
gaps in their supervision. In a report
last year, they said that “effectively
addressing all enforcement issues...
continues to be a concern.”
Despite major shortcomings in the
tire-recycling system, federal and
California officials touted their
border cleanup accomplishments in
The U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency announced that thanks to cooperation
between U.S. and Mexican agencies,
4 million tires had been removed
from the border region since 2003.
Regulators from both countries agreed
to consider more steps for further
reducing waste tires.
“The solutions will come if there
are laws and regulations and funding
on the Mexican side,” said EPA waste
expert Emily Pimentel.
In California, tire-recycling efforts
have languished despite the tens
of millions of dollars that residents
pay each year when they replace old
Consumers pay a state-mandated $1.75
per new tire that’s commonly listed
as a disposal or recycling fee. That
description is only partly accurate.
The state’s Air Resources Board collects
75 cents from each fee to fight air
pollution. The rest goes to the state’s
Integrated Waste Management Board
for clearing piles of waste tires,
researching ways to reuse old tires,
developing markets for tire scrap
and regulating tire storage and hauling.
The fee doesn’t directly cover the
cost of recycling tires that customers
leave at shops. Some vendors charge
an additional $2 or more in the name
of doing so.
“Almost all tire shops will tell
you it’s a recycling fee... But at
least in San Diego County, at least
half of those (tires) are going to
end up in landfills,” Buchanan said.
In recent years, the state’s waste
board has collected millions more
in tire fees than it has spent. The
result: The fund has ballooned to
roughly $42 million from less than
$1 million in fiscal 2001, when fees
The current balance doesn’t include
a $17 million loan that the waste
board made to the state’s general
fund in fiscal 2004. The money is
supposed to be repaid by mid-2009,
but it is unclear if that will happen
because of California’s budget crisis.
Last year, the nonpartisan Legislative
Analyst’s Office raised questions
about the tire fund.
“The waste tire program appears to
be in a holding pattern,” it said.
“Despite large initial gains in waste
tire diversion, in recent years,
both the diversion rate and the number
of waste tires deposited into the
state’s landfills...have remained
Waste board officials said the fund
has grown because the Legislature
has limited how much the agency can
spend regardless of what it collects.
Jordan Scott of the waste board wouldn’t
say whether the board is aggressively
seeking to free up more money.
California’s large tire-fund reserve
frustrates local waste and environmental
officials who want more dollars spent
on turning old tires into useful
“I would like to see that money,
on a percentage basis, come back
to San Diego County. That is just
a reasonable thing,” said Wayne Williams,
a recycling coordinator for the county.
The recycling options include grinding
up tires and adding them to asphalt,
making what local road officials
said is a quieter and more durable
surface. In San Diego County, about
37 miles of road have been paved
with rubberized asphalt and 23 more
miles are in the works.
Several waste experts said the region
needs a tire-recycling facility.
Bonsall entrepreneur David Willis
is trying to win state grants and
obtain final approvals for what would
be the county’s first such plant.
The facility would be housed in an
existing industrial building in Vista.
Willis hopes that by late spring,
he will be shredding about 1.1 million
tires a year and selling the material
mainly for paving local roads.
The startup process has been arduous,
he said, because the business needs
multimillion-dollar machines and
In the nonprofit sector, the environmental
group Wildcoast in Imperial Beach
is battling the recurrence of tires
washing up in the border region after
In June and October, Wildcoast volunteers
helped collect tons of tires from
the Tijuana River Valley County Park.
The tires were stored on county land,
where they remain while park officials
seek a state grant to pay for their
After a storm during Thanksgiving
week, the spot that Wildcoast and
other groups had cleaned became waist-deep
in debris – including more tires.
Ben McCue, a Wildcoast activist,
wants the state to start spending
money to reduce the waste-tire problem
from the Tijuana end. McCue is talking
with local legislators about proposed
programs such as teaching residents
how to prevent the tires that they
use to build retaining walls and
home foundations from washing away
It could be a tough sell in California’s
budget-weary Capitol. McCue remains
hopeful that he can convince politicians
they can save money and help the
environment by short-circuiting the
“It’s just a matter of if it’s the
right time or if we have to wait
a little longer,” he said.
—Reprinted with permission from
The San Diego Union-Tribune