Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Why are there so many tires in the woods, and why should we care?

You've seen them: tires scattered incongruently in the woods amidst beech trees and ferns. In many parts of the United States, old tires are the most illegally dumped item. The photo at right was taken in Shepherd Parkway below 2nd Street SE in 2011, before our awesome volunteers removed all the tires. 

Of all the things people might want to get rid of, why are there so many tires in our public land park lands? 

Most tire sellers charge customers a disposal fee of a few dollars. The seller then contracts with hauler to pick up the tires. The hauler then has several options: they can pay to dispose of the tires at a landfill, which usually costs at least a dollar per tire, or transfer them to a recycler. Tires can be ground up used for as a porous paving surance for parking lots and playgrounds, or can be turned into fuel. The recycler may be located some distance away and might also charge a fee. 

If the hauler is unscrupulous or pressed for cash, they may risk a cheaper option: rolling the tires down a hill into the woods, usually on public land. It takes only minutes and is difficult to prosecute unless someone catches them in the act. Illegal dumping is rarely an enforcement priority for police- especially in low-income areas- state and local land managers and environmental crimes units are invariable under-staffed and spread out over a huge area.   

In many states, including Maryland (80 cents) and Virginia (5 cents) also require tire sellers to collect a state fee, with revenue going to offset landfill and recycling. 

None of the options for disposing of tires is ideal.  Tire are not biodegradable and are hard to compact, so they take up a lot of space in landfills. Recycling is also a bit of a trade-off: over a period of many years, sun, water, soil and ice cause them to slowly break down. As this happens, toxic oils and heavy metals such as lead are released into the soil, where they remain for centuries, slowly leaching into the groundwater and local streams and rivers. Recycling facilities can be very loud and smelly. 

When tires are scattered willy nilly in the woods, they contaminate the view as well as the soil and water. They are an eyesore and an insult to the great American idea of setting aside land for preservation of the natural landscape and ecosystems for future generations.   

The most serious threat posed by those tires laying around outside is one you won't notice until you try to pick one up. Anyone who's helped us remove tires from Shepherd Parkway knows that rain water accumulates inside the tires is very difficult to set out. The water is stagnant, and often warm- a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos. 

Given the coming of mosquito season and recent reports of Zika botched tests, the urgency of cleaning up these tires in our communities takes of greater urgency.  

Stay tuned as I do additional research into tire disposal in the DC area. 


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