A Burning Issue: Recycling Old Tires


Tires -- can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

Excuse the tired adage normally used to describe the opposite sex, but it's an apt appraisal of our disposal dilemma with those rubber doughnuts that Americans consume at the rate of 250 million per year.

Bury them, shred them, anchor them as bulkheads or reefs, put them on playgrounds, mix them with asphalt, burn them. Man's ingenuity continues to be stretched by the resilient detritus of our automotive society.

The problem of what to do with old tires often leads to midnight dumping in a field or by a country road or in a creek. The tossed tire is a common nuisance for trash collectors and community clean-up crews.

Some would-be entrepreneurs started collecting used tires on their vacant land years back, sometimes charging a dumping fee DTC or perhaps hoping there would be a future profit in the unrecycled resource.

Mountains of pneumatic refuse accreted over the years, towers of tires that could only grow taller and broader. Eventually, they posed potential fire and health hazards, and made the land unusable.

In Maryland alone, more than 10 million tires are stored in two dozen illegal dumps, the targets of a state clean-up program. If you bought new tires over the past year, you've contributed to that effort through a $1 state surcharge. Most of the dumpers or landowners have escaped financial responsibility; the fields have been abandoned or their owners are deep in bankruptcy.

The state is also using the tire tax to fund research into recycling the discarded rubber hoops.

It gave the University of Maryland $400,000 to study different ways to mix shredded, melted tires into asphalt for repaving roads. (That's always the option of first resort for recycling anything: mix it with asphalt.) So the college will evaluate the various recipes for the next two years in a couple dozen test


Actually, it's an old idea. Scrap tires have been used for some time to help pave roads.

There's an example here at home on Route 543, just south of Route 22, where a one-mile stretch was laid with the springy substance two years ago. The surface seems to wear well, but the mixture (which uses about one 20-pound tire per foot of two-lane blacktop) costs twice as much as plain asphalt.

Does this sound like a familiar recycling story?

But Harford County has already discovered an effective, cost-saving system for turning a steady stream of old tires into a useful product: energy. The county's Magnolia incinerator at Aberdeen Proving Ground burns up tires to create steam at the (( rate of 60,000 round ones or more each month.

The steam is sold to APG for its heating systems from November through April; county officials have been hoping for some time that APG would add chillers for central air conditioning of buildings, so the process could continue year-round.

(In warm months, the Magnolia plant's steam from ordinary trash is simply vented into the open air, when it could properly be termed a "waste-to-waste" plant, or what we used to call just a plain incinerator.)

Tires have a relatively high energy content (so less oil is needed) and they emit less sulfur pollution than coal. Soot or particulate matter is heavier, but with proper scrubbers on smokestacks, there's no reason why tires can't burn as cleanly as, say, this newspaper.

One major problem does exist, though: assuring a steady supply of tires to fire the furnace, but not an unmanageable excess that overflows the storage yard.

(The minor problem is keeping the storage yard manned, secure and free of hazards.)

The wavering fortunes of Harford's strategic used tire stockpile have been reflected in the off-again, on-again manner of setting county fees for taking scrap tires.

A few years ago, Harford charged bulk haulers $1.50 per tire to accept their loads; that was designed to discourage desperate haulers from outside Harford who could find no place to take their rubber refuse.

A year ago, that disposal fee was dropped. Not only was the Magnolia incinerator hungry for high-energy fuel, as the stocks ran low, but more tires were being dumped illegally all over the county, causing more clean-up work for sanitation crews.

Next month, the county will again charge fees: $2 per tire for non-Harford haulers, 50 cents for county resident firms. (Harford residents can still discard up to six tires at a time free at the Scarboro landfill or Mullins tire storage yard on Old Post Road near Aberdeen.)

The new fee structure encourages Harford commercial users to bring in their old tires, while making outsiders think twice about the cost of transporting their waste here, explained Frank Henderson, deputy public works director.

"It's a good balance of needs for the county, and we're not encouraging tires from the outside," he said. The money will also fund improvements at the Mullins facility that are required by new state laws. Mullins now has more than 200,000 tires stored, about half a heating season's supply. Fees at the privately owned incinerator may also increase, as a result of ongoing talks.

A cement factory in Frederick is burning tires in its high-temperature kilns; another cement plant in Carroll County is about to burn them. The idea is catching on.

Before long, we may view old tires as a valuable energy resource, instead of looking at them as an environmental eyesore.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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