By Wendy Gabriel on December 31, 2012

Only 80% of spent rubber tires are recycled annually in the U.S. But their recycled purposes make them an important commodity.

recycle tiresUsed or scrap tires have been an environmental challenge. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. recycles 233 million tires out of the 290 million that are worn out each year.

It is estimated that just in the U.S. alone there are more than 1 billion tires in illegal tire piles. These tires create dangerous conditions of uncontrollable fires, air pollution as well as health hazards.

According to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, “Tires exposed to the elements can hold water and be a breeding space for mosquitoes that carry disease. Tire piles can be set on fire through arson or accident. These fires are difficult to put out, and produce heavy smoke and toxic runoff to waterways. Tire piles can also harbor other vermin, such as rats and snakes.”

It is important to ensure your used tires are handled properly. Most tire retailers have takeback programs, so consumers purchasing new tires can leave their old ones to be recycled.

If you have extra tires that you need to dispose of properly, check 1-800-RECYCLING’s extensive database to find a local recycling facility that accepts tires. Some cities host special days throughout the year when residents can bring a limited number of tires to a drop-off site free of charge. For more information, check with your city or local solid waste management agency.

After you have turned your old tires over to a tire retailer or a recycling center, they will almost certainly end up at a commercial reprocessing plant.

The process, according to Discovery.com, is to treat the scrap tires with chemicals to break them down into a material that can be reused. Some reprocessing plants use a process called devulcanization that breaks down and removes the sulfur that was originally added to the rubber to make it harden. The resulting material is called “reclaim rubber.” The reclaim rubber is then put through a mechanical grinder. Sometimes it is first frozen by exposing it to liquid nitrogen, which makes the reclaim rubber brittle so that it can be easily ground into a fine powder.

According to the EPA, there are at least 110 products that are currently made of material derived from used tires.

  • Every year, approximately 12 million scrap tires are made into rubberized asphalt, which is used to resurface federal interstates and highways in many states.
  • Another transportation-related use for old tires is highly durable, rubber-encased railroad ties. Each tie includes about 80 pounds of ground-up scrap tires and plastic from discarded bottles, held together with a special binder or glue around a steel beam. The resulting product is about twice as strong and will last about three times as long as a wooden tie.
  • Recycled tires are also used to create eco-friendly, low-maintenance decks for homes. Ground-up tire rubber is combined with polyethylene resins to make molded boards that can withstand extreme heat and cold and sun and insect damage better than natural wood.
  • Recycled tire rubber can also be used for running tracks, basketball courts and outdoor playground surfaces.

For more information on national scrap tire issues and information, visit the Scrap Tire Management Council website.

About the author

Wendy Gabriel is a freelance eco-writer based in Fargo, ND. She is the founder of MyGreenSide.org and tweets at @MyGreenSide. Wendy is a wife to an amazing man and a mother of two awesome little girls. Everything she does is seen through this lens. Her passion for sustainability is a gift from her parents, who were green long before it was "cool to be green." You can hear Wendy each Tuesday when she brings Simple Tips for Green Living to "The Christopher Gabriel Program." Stream the segment at approximately 8:20 a.m. (CST) at WDAY.com.
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