Tires like these are recycled for construction projects, rubber mats, artificial turf, or tire-derived fuel, which is burned in power plants and cement factories. (Photo: Leah Nash)

Sometimes global economic forces are stronger than good intentions...

STOCKTON, California—Inside a dark, high-ceilinged machine shop, Mark Hope leans over a motionless conveyor belt, picking through the black scraps. He finds what he’s looking for and holds it up—a web of silver wires sandwiched between two layers of black rubber. “There’s a lot of metal in tires,” he says. “Ten, fifteen percent.” The wire is tough on the equipment, he says. He points up to the shredder, a grimy box with one conveyor to drop tires into the hopper on the top and another conveyor to carry the shredded tires away. The shears are inside the box. “We have to change these out all the time,” he says. They’re constantly going dull from the wire.

Every morning, a fleet of trucks leaves the yard of Hope’s business, Waste Recovery West, on the outskirts of Stockton to collect fodder for its shredder. They spread out, some going west through the Bay Area, some north a bit past Sacramento, others south as far as Bakersfield. Each returns loaded with hundreds of old tires.

Every year, California drivers generate more than 40 million used tires. Most of them are too beat up to be returned to the road, and until the early 1990s, two-thirds went to landfills, taking up space and costing municipalities money. Others were burned for fuel, and a small portion were recycled. Since then, the state government has spent millions, going to great lengths to keep those tires out of the dump. Besides their utility as fuel, scrap tires can be shredded and turned into artificial turf, or applied as landfill cover to keep other trash from blowing or washing away, but the government prefers that they be recycled, turned into something new and useful. The state has been the catalyst getting the tire recycling businesses up and running, and developing markets for the recycled tire products those businesses make possible.

That went well for a while—the portion of California’s scrap tires winding up in landfills fell from about 65 percent in 1990 to just 26 percent in 2001—until an increase in the prices of Australian coal and Southeast Asian natural rubber threw California’s tire recycling system for a loop. Soon after, Hope started getting calls. The callers were Chinese, or Vietnamese. They were looking for tires. Sometimes they’d call three, four times a week, he says. They had machines to crush the tires down into compact bales and started shipping millions of them to Asia, where they were now a cheaper option than coal for burning in factory furnaces. Suddenly, tire recyclers across the state were sitting idle as the elaborate program the state had kick-started no longer had the material to feed the system. “These balers came along and tossed it all to the wind,” Hope says.

It’s an apt metaphor: Numerous studies have shown that pollution from China makes it across the Pacific Ocean, fouling California air. A 2015 study by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, published in Nature Geoscience, found that although the Western United States greatly reduced its pollutant emissions between 2005 and 2010, air quality remained the same because of a simultaneous increase in emissions in China. Some of those tires were likely making it back to Hope’s shop—as smog.

(Infographic: Evan Applegate)

Sixty years ago, many worn-out tires were tossed on heaps. Like the landfills they competed with, the owners of these stockpiles charged a fee to accept the tires, then simply threw them on the pile. By the end of the 1980s, when California’s population had grown 150 percent from the 1950s and its car culture was triumphant, the state’s waste management board estimated that more than 45 million tires were stockpiled across the state.

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During the 1980s, a number of large tire piles in other states caught fire (providing writers of The Simpsons with a running gag). It’s not easy for tires to ignite, but once they do, they burn fantastically—a tire has a heating value roughly the same as that of good-quality coal. In 1983, seven million tires caught fire in Mountain Falls, Virginia, and burned for nine months. Concerned about the environmental and economic threats these stockpiles posed, California lawmakers passed the California Tire Recycling Act in 1989. The act set up a system to track the movement of tires around the state. A business hauling or storing tires needed to have a permit, and to keep track of how many tires it had. Second, the California Integrated Waste Management Board, the agency the state set up to handle recycling, started pushing people to come up with ways to reuse old tires and worked to develop markets for those uses. To help with the costs, it gave out grants.

You can’t say to owners of tires, ‘You can’t ship them to another country.’ Is it, from our perspective, the best outcome? Absolutely not.

Jeff Danzinger, CalRecycle

Everything was paid for with a small fee on new tires. When people left their old tires, new-tire retailers would collect a fee of their own, the tire-disposal fee. The dealer wasn’t allowed to have too many tires lying around (fire prevention), so with a share of that tire-disposal fee she paid someone to take them away. The hauler willing to take the smallest portion of the collection fee got the gig. The hauler also wanted to get rid of the tires as cheaply as possible, bringing them to either a landfill, a tire burner (who torched them for electricity or to fire a cement kiln), or a recycler. Each of these disposers collected another smidgen of the collection fee. The idea that made tire recycling work was that businesspeople like Hope, being the only ones in the system who could make money off the used tire, could afford to underbid both the landfill and the burners. 

For most of the '00s, the state’s scrap tire industry hummed along, collecting tires, recycling some of them, burning some of them, sowing some of them over landfills. The system kept about 70 percent of scrap tires out of the landfills—plenty of room for improvement but vastly better than a couple decades earlier. Recycling, though, represented relatively little of this progress. 

The problem was that recycling is rarely the cheapest or easiest option, whatever the material—even glass and plastic face economic barriers before being refashioned into a new bottle or a deck chair. For a complex object like a tire, made of several materials woven together, this is truer still. Spending money to separate these elements for reuse is at least partly an expression of belief in a greater good—that when a tire’s driving days are done, the rubber and metal are still good for something. The ideal that if it can be reused, it should be, supersedes the pure economics.

But an ideal is hard to enforce. An old tire is worth less than nothing. Everyone is paying to get rid of it. Boosting the share of recycled tires meant putting a finger on the scale, either by increasing the cost of dumping tires in the landfill or burning them, or by somehow making recycling more economically robust.

Then a new crop of balers arrived and upset the whole thing. The tires weren’t worth less than nothing to them.  

Equipment at Tire Disposal & Recycling in Portland, Oregon, similar to that of tire recycling operations in California. (Photo: Leah Nash)

Water from a rainstorm is pooled on the floor at Waste Recovery West, mixed in with the little curls of rubber that Hope says are constantly bouncing off the belts. Wearing glasses, a dark sweater, and a newsboy cap, he looks around the shop at the shredder, the conveyors, and the shaker screen that sifts the shredded tires. “These three pieces brand-new are three-quarters of a million dollars,” he says. By the time you add in the conveyors and electrical costs, you’re at a million two. “So you look at that compared to a baler. Thirty-five, fifty thousand dollars for a baler, and you’re set up and shipping them out.” That’s just the comparative start-up costs. He has dozens of employees, taxes, payroll, equipment to maintain. The person running the baling operation might have three employees—and taxes? Permits? Forget it. Many of the new balers were under-permitted or off the books altogether, according to established tire dealers; CalRecycle confirmed the increase in illegal activities in its 2011 enforcement report.

In the summer of 2007, the price of Australian coal spiked, squeezing power plants supplying China’s booming economy with electricity. Suddenly tires were cheaper than coal as a source of fuel. Soon after, the price of natural rubber also jumped. Asian tire manufacturers started putting more rubber from used tires in their new tires. That used up the scrap tires that could have gone to the power plants. The power plants then began looking abroad. Records from CalRecycle (which took over from CIWMB in 2010) show exports as a negligible share of California’s scrap tire market prior to 2007. They registered a small increase in 2008 and again in 2009. In 2010, exports doubled, accounting for roughly a fifth of the market. By 2011, more than a quarter were exported.

“Typically there were three or four layers of brokers,” Hope says. There was the person feeding the baling machine. There was somebody who was the baler’s contact in Asia, usually in Vietnam. Then there was someone transporting the tires to China and somebody using the tires. The companies that send him tires often want to know where those tires end up, he says. He sells some to be used as fuel abroad, but he says he’s been to these facilities and can vouch for their environmental standards. The people that started calling him during the export boom weren’t giving any details. “ ‘How are you using these? What are you doing? What’s the end use for the tires?’ ” he recalls asking. “It was not transparent at all.”

Mark Hope. (Photo: Leah Nash)

Adding a player who wanted tires to a system in which everyone was trying to get rid of them had a disastrous effect. Sometimes, instead of treating the tires as worthless and demanding a fee to take them (as the burners, dumpers, and recyclers did), they even took them for free. The biggest advantage was to the tire dealers, who were able to keep more or even all the disposal fees they collected. The flow of scrap tires from the dealers out into the system CalRecycle had painstakingly fostered slowed, and recycling started to decline.

In June 2012, CalRecycle predicted two outcomes. If demand for tires in Asia remained strong, the exporters would become established members of the state’s scrap tire industry. In this scenario, the number of tires going to the landfill would stay low. But the environmental benefit might be a wash. Terry Levielle, a lobbyist for the tire recycling industry in Sacramento, says the cement kilns that incinerate tires in California are subject to some of the strictest air quality regulations in the country, standards he doubts the factories in China can match—a hunch that air quality in Beijing would seem to support. But as long as exporters were properly permitted, there was little CalRecycle could do about it. “It’s a commodity. You can’t say to owners of tires, ‘You can’t ship them to another country,’ ” says CalRecycle spokesperson Jeff Danzinger. “Is it, from our perspective, the best outcome? Absolutely not.”

In the other—worse—scenario, demand in China would remain high just long enough to undercut the established recycling industry and then would fall away. This, CalRecycle writes in its 2011 California Waste Tire Market Report, would “leave the state poorly equipped to maintain waste tire diversion levels.” The tires that didn’t get exported might wind up back in the dump.

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What happened landed somewhere in the middle. In 2013 and ’14, China’s economy faltered. The price of Australian coal fell and with it, demand for scrap tires. Hope says that some of the tire haulers who abandoned him in favor of the balers and their lower prices started calling him again, looking to return to the fold. Some of the balers disappeared, leaving behind warehouses full of unwanted scrap tires. As a major recycler with business in several states, Hope says he was able to weather the lean years. Many smaller companies went under, though he characterized that as a correction of the industry’s overcrowding. Haulers and recyclers have gotten used to collecting smaller fees, and prices remain low, but the state’s overall capacity to recycle scrap tires or at least keep them from the landfill hasn’t been permanently damaged.

Hope’s ideal situation would be a return to the status quo ante, along with better enforcement from CalRecycle. If demand for exports spikes again, he wants to be sure everyone is playing by the same rules. The state passed a law in 2012 that the agency says streamlines enforcement and makes it easier to revoke tire-handling permits or deny them in the first place.

The state’s broader aim, though, is not a return to the old normal but an expansion of the higher ideal. In 2011, the governor signed a bill that increased California’s recycling goal to 75 percent of all its solid waste by 2020. Although few tires end up in the landfill, only about a third of old tires are recycled. To double that rate means pulling tires from other uses—especially exports. Proposed Assembly Bill 1239 would add a fee to the one the state charges new tire buyers. Earmarked for helping CalRecycle incentivize recycling over other uses, it would put a finger on the scale and help align the economics with the ideal. “It’s not about a particular metric,” says Mark Oldfield, another CalRecycle spokesperson. “It’s about the overall sustainability ethic that California embraces.”

Just outside the open bay doors of Hope’s shop, a worker rolls a truck tire from the end of a long row and hoists it onto a conveyor. The conveyor carries it up and drops it into the mouth of a howling machine. Shredded tire falls from the chute below onto another conveyor. By the time the shreds make it to the top of that conveyor, fall onto another and into the bed of a six-axle truck, the worker has two more tires up on the first conveyor.

Hope wonders whether the state’s goals have expanded beyond what is realistic or reasonable. With only about 10 percent of tires getting landfilled (even as exports have slowed somewhat), he thinks trying to push the recycling rate higher might be a case of diminishing returns. In the meantime, he says, he’s focused on keeping his business healthy, so that if China’s economy rebounds and the fly-by-night balers show up again, he’ll be ready.

By Zach St. George Feb 12, 2016
Alaska native Zach St. George has a master's degree from the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has written for, High Country News, Guernica, and others.
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