By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Tires are pesky things to dispose of, and the United States generates about 300 million used tires a year, or about one per person. According to the Rubber Manufactures Association, the trade group for tire manufactures, about half are burned at high-energy facilities such as paper mills and cement kilns. A quarter are recycled into rubber flooring, playground mulch and synthetic turf fields, or mixed with asphalt. About 8 percent ends up in landfills.
Rhode Island gets rid of about a million tires annually. Some 200,000 are collected through the Central Landfill, and most of those are shredded in Connecticut and then shipped to Maine for fuel at two paper-pulping mills. The ash is returned to Rhode Island where it's landfilled.
The cost to dispose of tires jumped after a tire incinerator in Sterling, Conn., closed in 2013. A subsequent glut of tires has more than tripled the disposal cost for the region. As of Jan. 1, the cost for the Central Landfill to dispose of tires increased from $50 to $150 a ton. As a result, municipalities and residents who bring their tires to the landfill pay $5 per standard scrap tire and $10 for truck tires. The previous cost was $2.50 a tire.
The price increase prompted questions from municipalities and an apparent upturn in tires dumped in state parks and public places. A May 4 Statehouse hearing was held to examine the complex nature of tire disposal.
Tracey Norberg, legal council for the Rubber Manufacturers Association, noted that the tire disposal problem was much worse in 1990, when lightly regulated disposal sites and collection facilities were allowed to store tires, prompting huge tire piles that posed fire and other health threats. Tire fires are notoriously difficult to extinguish and can burn for months, while releasing harmful air and ground pollution. Back then, more than 1 billion tires were stockpiled across the country. Most states eventually outlawed or regulated stockpiles, and today some 60 million scrap tires sit dormant, mostly in Colorado and Texas.
Rhode Island had its own tire-pile fiasco in the 1990s, when a private landowner collected some 6 million tires on 14 acres at his property in Smithfield. After nearly two decades of attempts to close or regulate the facility, court action eventually led to the clean up of the Davis tire pile, a portion of which was a Superfund site.
Like Rhode Island, most states reduced their tire-pile problem by requiring permits for storage and limiting the number of scrap tires stored in one location. In Rhode Island, the limit is 400. Rhode Island has no in-state collectors or processors that chip or shred used tires. Massachusetts has five collectors/processors; Connecticut has three. Whole tires are prohibited from being dumped in landfills in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Rhode Island is one of 12 states that allow whole tires to be buried.
An often-misunderstood Rhode Island law requires auto-repair shops and auto-part stores to charge a $5 deposit for every new tire purchased. The deposit is supposed to be refunded to the purchaser for each used tire brought back to the garage or retailer within 14 days. It was noted during the recent Statehouse hearing that most customers are unaware of, or take advantage of, the refund.
Rhode Island's 50-cent tire tax is even less understood. The fee is classified as a “hard-to-dispose of material” by the state. Yet, it's unclear how the tax revenue is spent. The proceeds go into the state General Fund, but both the state Department of Environmental Management and the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, the operators of the Central Landfill, say they don't receive direct proceeds from the tax. Although DEM receives much of its funding from the General Fund.
Norberg argued against any additional fees on tire purchases to fund programs to manage tire collection. Take-back, or extended producer responsibility (EPR), programs were recently enacted for paint and mattresses recycling and disposal in Rhode Island. Norberg said the current market-based system is sufficient and that 95 percent of all scrap tires are managed and accounted for through state programs.
“Scrap-tire management is all about markets. It’s about that end use,” Norberg said. “And if you prop up the processing, you basically create an imbalanced system that won’t work economically in the long term."
Other hard-to-dispose-of items, such as household hazardous waste, could be disposed more efficiently if community collection centers are established through new legislation in Rhode Island. The Household Hazardous Waste Management Act would create state-owned collection centers, likely funded through EPR programs, for disposing of hazardous chemicals and other items that should be left out of the trash.
Used tires were in the original version of the bill, but they were removed at the request of the tire industry. A separate EPR program for tires is being considered.
The Household Hazardous Waste Management Act was passed by the Rhode Island Senate on May 25 and heads to the House for a hearing.