Watchdog report: Tire trouble knows no borders
Allegedly recycled tires often end up being exported or dumped

Approximately 11 million tires a year are improperly disposed of in dumps, vacant lots or by illegal exportation.

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 illicit channels.

Federal and California waste officials blame each other, poor research and financial constraints for the cross-border tire mess.

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 20 years.
  • A state tire-recycling fund that has grown to $42 million while potential solutions lack money.
  • 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,” Buchanan said.

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 percent.

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 resale.

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 illegally.

“People know that they can get a good price for them in Mexico. Apparently, they are not that hard to smuggle,” Buchanan said.

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 August.

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 tires.

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 were increased.

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 relatively constant.”

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 products.

“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 numerous permits.

In the nonprofit sector, the environmental group Wildcoast in Imperial Beach is battling the recurrence of tires washing up in the border region after each storm.

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 removal.

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 during storms.

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 waste-tire cycle.

“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