If you spent a bundle to get some top-of-the-line, high performance tires, you’re probably pretty attached to them. But while checking regularly to make sure they're properly inflated, keeping your front end properly aligned and other routine maintenance can extend the life of your tires, eventually all tires wear out. Most tires have tread-wear indicators that appear when the tire treads are worn down to the legal limit. But you can also do a simple test by placing a penny into the groove. If you can see the top of Abe Lincoln’s head, it’s time to head to the tire store [source: TireRack.com].
But what should you do with your old tires? You could stick them in your backyard and make them into planters. You could dump them in an empty lot, if you want to be an irresponsible litterbug. You could heave them over the fence at night into your local landfill, which probably no longer takes them. Or you could burn them, if you don’t care about polluting the air with dangerous toxins.
We’re just teasing you, of course. If you’re a good citizen, you won’t do any of those things. You’ll dispose of your tires the responsible way, by recycling them.
Americans wear out about 290 million tires a year, and they recycle 233 million of them, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [source: EPA].
These days, it’s pretty easy to do. We’ll explain how it's done and what happens to your recycled tires on the next couple of pages.
Tire Recycling Centers
If you can’t get a retailer to take your tires, your local county or municipal government should be able to help you out. Some have special tire pickup days when you can leave your tires out by the curb, while others, like Montgomery County, Md., outside Washington, D.C., have waste stations that will accept tires for recycling [source: Montgomery County, MD]. You usually can get information on this by checking your local government Web site.
If you’ve accumulated a bunch of old tires on your property over the years, we bet your neighbors would love for you to contact a tire recycling company and have them haul all that wasted rubber away. For example, in New Jersey the Scrap Tire Recycling Co’s Web site says it will pick up any size load of car tires. (They’ll collect airplane tires, too, if you have any of those.) The company then markets the scrap tires to other firms that repurpose the rubber into various products [source: Recyclemytires.com].
Whether you turn in your old tires at a recycling center or leave them with a tire retailer, they'll probably end up at a commercial reprocessing plant. There, the scrap tires will be treated with chemicals to break them down into a material that can be reused. Some plants use a process called devulcanization, which breaks down and removes the sulfur that originally was added to the rubber to make it harden. The result is a material called reclaim rubber, which is cheaper than virgin rubber, although it sometimes lacks the tensile strength. The reclaim rubber is then put through a mechanical grinder. Sometimes it’s first frozen by exposing it to liquid nitrogen, which makes the reclaim rubber brittle so it can be more easily ground into a fine powder [source: Klingensmith].
Tire Recycling Projects
While old tires may seem like worthless junk, they can be put to myriad uses. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are at least 110 products that are currently made of material derived from used tires.
One use for old tires is to put them back on the road -- as part of the road. About 12 million scrap tires a year are made into rubberized asphalt, which is used to resurface federal interstates and highways in many states. Studies show that it has a lower life-cycle cost than conventional pavement. In northern Virginia, road builders also have combined shredded tire rubber with cement to form “whisper walls” that deflect sound waves from traffic and reduce the noise level, sparing local residents’ ears [source: EPA].
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 as a wooden tie, and will last as long as 90 years, about three times what a wooden tie would last [source: EPA].
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, sun and insect damage better than natural wood. Rubber composite decks last about 25 years and require little maintenance, except for an occasional hosing [source: Luxury Housing Trends].
Another increasingly popular use for recycled tire rubber is for running tracks, basketball courts and outdoor playground surfaces. These surfaces not only are durable but they're cushiony enough to keep children from hurting themselves when they fall. At West Lake Park in Hollywood, Fla., kids play in a replica pirate ship that sits atop a simulated lagoon, complete with swimming manatees and sea turtles, fabricated from 8,000 scrap tires [source: Broward County, FL].
- “Eco-friendly Rubber Composite Decking Made from Recycled Tires.” Luxury Housing Trends. April 9, 2008. (May 31, 2010) http://www.luxuryhousingtrends.com/archive/2008/04/ecofriendly-rub/
- “How to recycle/dispose of tires.” Montgomerycountymd.gov. May 31, 2010. (May 31, 2010) http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/apps/dep/solidwaste/collectionservices/material_detail.asp?categoryID=31
- “Frequent Questions.” Environmental Protection Agency. Feb. 2, 2010. (May 31, 2010) http://www.epa.gov/waste/conserve/materials/tires/faq.htm
- Klingensmith, Bill. "Recycling, Production and Use of Reprocessed Rubber." Rubber World. March 1, 1991. (June 1, 2010) http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Recycling,+production+and+use+of+reprocessed+rubbers-a010527025
- “Measuring Tire Tread Depth with a Coin.” TireRack.com. Undated. (May 31, 2010). http://www.tirerack.com/tires/tiretech/techpage.jsp?techid=51
- “Used Tire Recycling.” Kane County Recycles. 2005. (May 31, 2010) http://www.co.kane.il.us/Environment/recycle/tires.htm
- “Waste Tire Removal and Suppression Program.” Broward.org. Undated. (May 31, 2010) http://www.broward.org/recycling/wastetire.htm
- “Welcome to Scrap Tire Recycling LLC.” Recyclemytires.com. Undated. (May 31, 2010) http://www.recyclemytires.com/index.html