Although most of these old tires are reused, recycled or end up in a stockpile somewhere, almost one quarter of them end up in landfills each year — taking up precious space while leaching toxic chemicals into the environment during the 50 to 80 years it takes a tire to break down. (The EPA found that nearly 5 million tons of tire waste was generated in 2007 alone.) As for all the tires that don’t go to the dumps, this country has a stockpile of scrap tires that’s 2 to 3 billion deep and only growing.
If all these facts about old tires are leaving you a little flat, just know that even old tires can come full circle. Besides these crafty Pinterest projects, there are a number of things that this country as a whole can do with them:
1. Asphalt rubber. You might have seen this squishy stuff on playgrounds, but even more potential lies in the millions and millions miles of open road that stretch across the United States. Compared to conventional roads, those made with asphalt rubber are found to last longer, require less road maintenance, reduce road noise and more.
The material is incredibly easy to make — just shred some tires into crumbs, melt them down and mix with asphalt. “Asphalt rubber is the largest single market for ground rubber, consuming an estimated 220 million pounds, or approximately 12 million tires,” the EPA says. But for whatever reason, only seven states in the whole country use this technology — Arizona (which has been adding rubber to their roads since the 1960s), California, Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Nevada and New Mexico. Wake up and smell the (rubberized) asphalt, America.
2. Tire-Derived Fuel (TDF). While this form of fuel isn’t exactly as sustainable and clean as solar or wind energy, it’s considered better than siphoning off the earth’s oil and gas. TDF has lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional fuels and currently powers the pulp and paper industry, as well as the cement industry. About 30 states have TDF facilities that incinerate tires for fuel. “TDF is one of several viable alternatives to prevent newly generated scrap tires from inappropriate disposal in tire piles, and for reducing or eliminating existing tire stockpiles,” the EPA says. In 2003, about 130 million were reused as TDF. However, critics say that if these tires are not incinerated safely, fumes can be “extremely harmful to human health and the natural environment,” which is why it might not be smart for us to entirely rely on TDF for our energy needs.
3. Civil engineering projects. Rubber tires are inherently great for absorbing shock, so they can have multiple uses, the EPA suggests. A shredded-up tire can be used to construct or reinforce embankments on highways and ramps. Since tire chips are relatively light, they can also be used as insulation or filling for walls and bridge abutments. And with winter around the corner, a layer of shredded tires (about six to 12 inches thick) is not only permeable and ideal for draining melted snow, it can also prevent soil from freezing. Whole tires can also be turned into runoff barriers or boat bumpers at marinas.