Tire Economics: Oil Prices Down, Disposal Prices Up

Tire Economics: Oil Prices Down, Disposal Prices Up

Despite what you may think, used tires aren’t “waste.” They’re “product,” according to Paul Ciotta, spokesman for the Philadelphia region of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Resources. Tires can be recapped, used as artificial reefs off our coasts, shredded or chipped for use as fill or road surfacing material, and even melted down to allow recovery of the metal in their steel belts.

That’s one clue to why federal and so many state regulations fail to deal adequately with the question of what happens to used tires.

Tires do not biodegrade. Five, 10, even 20 years from now, the used tire you’ve forgotten to throw out from the corner of your garage is likely to be in virtually the same condition it’s in today. That’s the principal reason landfill owners don’t want to accept tires the way they will meat scraps from your dinner or empty paint cans from a home remodeling project. It’s also why landfill owners can charge a steep price—as much as $10 for a passenger car tire, Ciotta says—to accept used tires.

Courts and regulatory agencies don’t always act quickly.

When the California attorney general’s office filed suit against the two owners of a tire disposal operation near Westley just after Christmas, officials asked for two items: a temporary restraining order preventing the owners from bringing more tires to the site and a permanent injunction requiring them to reduce the pile at a rate of at least 4 million tires a year until no more than 5 million tires remain. Officials got a hearing date on the temporary order set for mid-March, 11 weeks after their request. In the meantime, the owners were believed to be adding to their stockpiles, already estimated to contain between 42 million and 46 million tires. If the state government succeeds with the second part of its suit, and the owners comply, the pile will contain more than 5 million tires until at least 1997.

A substantial but undocumented percentage of the slightly more than 2 billion tires produced in this country each year are eventually discarded.

“Ideas and technologies, including converting the tires to steam for power, are burgeoning,” says Ciotta. “Unfortunately for legitimate operators, not enough of them are profitable yet.”

Under those conditions, opportunities exist for a lot of people who give legitimate business operators a bad name. The person with a pick-up truck who offers gas station and tire store owners the chance to get rid of their old tires if they pay 50 cents or a buck apiece isn’t likely to be asked too many questions.

Four years ago, after a million gallons of fuel oil were recovered from the Winchester tire fire, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that under the proper conditions, 6 million tires might yield as much as 4 million gallons of oil. That’s just one possibility.

But with today’s energy prices, Ciotta says, the tires are likely to remain where they’re stockpiled, a hedge against inflation and a fire waiting to happen.

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