Majority of discarded tires in US are recycled
Write the Author

Of the approximately 300 million tires that are discarded in the United States annually, an estimated 80 percent are recycled.

The remainder mostly ends up in landfills, with some being exported. The main reason for the high number of recycled tires is due to the efforts of government and the tire industry.

With 48 states having legislation regulating the management of scrap tires, these laws affect most Americans and their local environments. Moreover, 32 states have consumers pay an up-front recycling fee when they purchase tires.

Because tires are considered to be a non-hazardous solid waste, the regulation of this material – a combination of rubber and steel – is the responsibility of the individual states and does not fall under EPA jurisdiction.

“In almost all those states,” says Mary Sikora, director of Tire and Rubber Recycling for the Tire Industry Association (TIA), “these regulations cover generators, haulers, processors and recyclers. The regulating infrastructure is pretty much in place.”

A key element of the regulations is that the shipments of tires from dealers to their final destination are documented.

“In most cases,” says Sikora, “the permitting and licensing of scrap tire collection, hauling, processing, recycling and storage is probably the most common elements of the state regulations. The paperwork is different in each state; some even require a manifest system, where they have to sign off at each step of the process.”

The Rubber Manufacturers Association’s (RMA) latest estimate has 80 percent of scrap tires being recycled, with the majority of the recycled tires being used as tire-derived fuel (TDF), while the remainder is used for rubberized asphalt and reuse in manufactured products, civil engineering applications, ground rubber and a variety of other applications and markets.

As part of its advocacy work, the TIA’s Tire and Rubber Recycling Advisory Council (TRRAC) has identified sound legislative and regulatory policies that are key components to fulfilling its mission of “ensuring the long term viability of tire and rubber recycling, while pursuing economic and environmental benefits.”

Early on, TRRAC included in its goals the need to maintain a vigorous, constant and credible advocacy program, as well as the need to promote and assist the tire and rubber recycling industry in legislative, judicial and regulatory arenas, when appropriate.

To carry out these goals, TRRAC and TIA’s Government Affairs Committee work in co-operation with TRRAC serving as the “watchdog” arm - identifying issues and proposed measures that may be harmful to tire and rubber recycling businesses, tire dealers and retreaders and the industry as a whole.

One of the first resources TRRAC developed to address legislative and regulatory issues were the creation of “Elements for Scrap Tire Legislation.”

Some of the elements included are:

  • A fee is collected on the sale of new tires to create a recycling fund dedicated strictly to scrap tires.
  • The scrap tire collection, sorting, processing and storage functions are licensed and closely regulated to ensure the proper flow of tires. While regulated, these functions are still allowed to operate in a competitive, free enterprise, market-driven economy.
  • Reimbursement and grant programs are used to create market incentives for the material. These incentives are directed to end users within the state, as well as to recyclers in other states, to encourage the maximum marketing potential for the scrap tire material.
  • Cleanup of states’ illegal sites is encouraged.
  • Sufficient revenue is provided to enforce the proper flow of material.
  • Security (proper storage) at the generator level is essential.
  • Identify markets for scrap tires or scrap tire-derived materials.

It’s these elements that TIA and the tire industry it represents - including dealers and recyclers - like to see in state regulations,” says Sikora. “And, in many cases, they are.”

Sikora stresses that organizations like TIA have been advocating the use of money raised from up-front recycling fees charged on retail tire purchases to fund tire recycling.

“TIA would like to see those funds always go to a dedicated tire recycling fund,” she says, “with the money used to support ongoing recycling operations, education programs and research to develop new uses and products that can be created with scrap tires.”

While some states ban the disposal of tires in landfills, others allow the practice to continue – some with a requirement that they be processed prior to dumping.

As is the case with some solid waste landfills that discourage or reject the dumping of C&D material because these items take up valuable space, tires are also discouraged or not accepted.

Among his responsibilities, Mike Fitzpatrick, an environmental scientist with the EPA, works with the EPA’s Resource Conservation Challenge program and serves on the Scrap Tire Committee. Although tires are non-hazardous, there are environmental issues associated with their disposal in open dumps or tire piles.

Fitzpatrick says TDF can provide “a fair amount of energy and when properly managed, is pretty much equivalent to other sources of fuel such as oil or coal. It is certainly something that we think is a legitimate recycling use.

“Given appropriate emissions controls, which you need for whatever type of fuel you are burning,” he adds, “they can be handled properly. It’s a matter of making sure that your system is designed and operating correctly for the type of fuel you are using. There is an economic incentive for them to use TDF.”

The EPA can, under certain circumstances, go after a tire dealer if his/her scrap tires are found in a superfund cleanup site, and, even if he/she uses a reputable recycler.

“The way the law is written,” said Fitzpatrick, “it’s not only the person who managed the Superfund site, but anybody who contributed waste that went into it – all can be held liable. So in that sense, if somebody is supplying tires that went into a landfill that later becomes a superfund site, even if they were not the one who delivered them there, technically the Superfund law does allow them to be held responsible.”

Finding effective solutions for tire recycling is essential since science has not yet provided a way to de-vulcanize rubber to its basic components, as opposed to a product like glass that can be melted down and reassembled into a new glass product.