“Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.” – E. B. White
At the turn of this century, a consumer product safety scandal nearly sunk two iconic US companies—Firestone and Ford—and severed their century-long commercial relationship. An unusually high number of Firestone tires were experiencing catastrophic tread separation failure, resulting in hundreds of deaths in the US alone. The failures were predominantly occurring on the first-generation Ford Explorer, leading to dramatic rollover events that understandably doused the fuel of outrage on an already hot corporate fire. Each company blamed the other, Congressional hearings dominated the nightly news, and billions in shareholder value were destroyed on both sides.
The drama between Ford and Firestone drew broad attention to the delicate marvel of engineering, physics, and chemistry inside the modern tire. Tire manufacturers must optimize for safety, performance, endurance, and cost—“an average tire contains well over 100 separate components. Tires can include natural rubber, synthetic rubber, steel, nylon, silica (derived from sand), polyester, carbon black, petroleum, etc.” As the only point of connection between vehicle and road, tires play an outsized role in driving performance and passenger safety.
As with most highly engineered products where cost is a defining constraint, by the time a tire reaches end-of-life it does so as a significant pollution issue. Complex materials with dozens of unique components are inherently hard to recycle, and there’s little of value to fetch from the gemish of plastic, steel, and other additives. Although tires have similar potential heat energy per pound as oil, directly burning them is impractical in most settings. To produce what’s known as “tire-derived fuel” (TDF), the spent product must be shredded such that the embedded steel can be fished out with magnets. Even after these measures, TDF is a dirty burn, emitting excess amounts of zinc and other pollutants into the environment.
Despite this well-known complication, the West’s insatiable appetite for “renewable energy” has creatively metabolized this pollution problem into a proposed green energy miracle (emphasis added throughout):
“When scientists think of a ‘biomass’ fuel, organic materials like wood pellets, timber scraps or other plant matter that can be burned typically comes to mind. But recent votes by the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) have stretched that definition, potentially allowing facilities to add scrap tires and even natural gas to the mix they burn to produce electricity.
The change has led to an uproar from environmental groups, who say the five-member elected utility regulator skirted its normal processes to push the change through without adequately considering potential pollution impacts.”
The absurd gambit by the Georgia Public Service Commission to reclassify spent tires as “biomass” highlights the truism that, when it comes to environmental policy, sustainability is what the government says it is. This is how it came to be, for example, that clear-cutting forests in the US Southeast, chopping them into pellets that are then shipped across the ocean and burned for heat value in the UK is considered “carbon-free.” (No, really, check it out.) If Georgia’s policy on tires is implemented, the state will undoubtedly climb the leaderboard of “greenest” in the US—a hollow designation.
The fate of end-of-life tires (ELTs) poses tough questions for environmentalists, policymakers, and industry captains alike. Given limited resources, society’s obsession with reducing carbon emissions at any price is crowding out sound investments in solving pollution problems of the here and now. Just how big is the problem of zombie tires, what are we currently doing with them, and will the mandated transition to electric vehicles (EVs) make things worse? The numbers might surprise you, so let’s spin a few wheels.