Back bowed and legs flexing to cling to the slime-coated rocks, I dig my nails into the riverbed. My fingers curl around the rubber rim of a tire. Pulling it free from its grave of silt and stone, the weight of black sludge that has settled in its ring throws me off balance, but I get it ashore. One down, a hundred more to go!
My student conservation club is doing a cleanup on the Schuylkill River. We planned to paddle several miles collecting garbage cast by recent floods. However, the waste is so overwhelming that we have a full day's work before we get in the boats.
It seems that streams have a magnetic pull on tires. Even new tires on display inside auto dealerships, I imagine, secretly dream of being embedded in the bottom of a stream, longing to be in the company of crayfish and trout.
People, unfortunately, are all too willing to assist tires in their progression from road to river. No one knows how many tires line our waters, but estimates for the stockpiled waste tires around the U.S. range from 500 million to 3 billion. The situation only looks dimmer when considering an additional 270 million tires are scrapped annually. Pennsylvania alone produces approximately 12.5 million each year, and Maryland generated 5.6 million scrap tires in 2007.
Part of the problem is that recapping tires, once a viable business making use of millions of tires, has now essentially ceased. Because tires need to be cut apart prior to disposal, using landfills is expensive, and illegal dumping has become a customary alternative. Although approximately 70 percent of U.S. auto tires are being recycled, that still leaves a huge number to be dealt with through less sustainable means.
Often this means a trip to the local stream. Steep roadside banks above waterways offer a form of sick entertainment for some. They pull up the family vehicle and cast the past years' bald tires to roll like bowling balls into the river.
But streams are not the world's toilet bowl. We cannot flush our garbage down the drain without clogging the toilet. People forget that streams are a part of the water cycle, a circle that is linked to the larger, delicately balanced environment in which we live. What goes around (or in this case into) comes back around. But when you're talking tires, they never leave at all.
In 1993, Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality did a statewide comprehensive survey identifying 731 piles containing more than 17 million tires. Since then, almost 500 additional piles containing approximately 8 million tires have been located; the DEQ must now deal with 25 million tires in 1,200 locations.
Tire dumps, especially on land, are dangerous to have around. Mosquitoes breed in "tire nurseries," and tire fires can be started by spontaneous combustion. One such fire raged under a major highway in Philadelphia, causing millions of dollars in damage and affecting traffic patterns for months.
Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania have done much in their struggle to combat their overwhelming tire dilemma. In the last nine years, Pennsylvania has cleaned up 26.9 million waste tires. Maryland established the Scrap Tire Program in 1992 and since has recovered more than 8.5 million tires from 690 sites.
Maryland's cement kilns ravenously devour scrap tires for supplemental fuel and consumed a little more than 1.2 million tires this past year alone. However, burning tires as fuel, the most popular use of waste tires, is not the environmentally friendliest option, as it increases air pollution.
Other, more sustainable uses include the production of floor mats, adhesives, gaskets, shoe soles and electrical insulators. Tires can be packed with soil and stones to be used in retaining walls and foundations. Seventy-two Maryland schools have had playgrounds and athletic fields constructed and renovated using ground-up crumb rubber from recycled tires. Chipped rubber from tires also can be blended into asphalt to create a driving surface with increased flexibility and durability. About 3 million old tires a year are used in asphalt for Florida roads alone.
On the home front, families can recycle their used tires by filling them with soil to create raised gardening beds. And don't forget the classic tire swing. After all, when we are dealing with millions upon millions of tires, every one that doesn't end up in the river counts.
Sierra Gladfelter is a Temple University freshman from New Ringgold, Pa. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.