Scrap tires pile up in Arkansas as state recycling funds fall short

By: - August 25, 2022 12:30 am

The Arkansas Legislative Council will consider a request Friday to use $1 million in state savings to sure up Arkansas' tire recycling program. (Getty Images)

Arkansas is on the cusp of a big rubber problem.

Unusable tires are piling up at tire shops, car dealerships and waste collection sites around the state. 

Those black rubber stacks will continue to grow unless state government acts quickly to patch up the program, which recently ran out of money. 

The Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality informed waste districts last week that the Tire Accountability Program was underfunded by $641,122 — or more than 31% — in the second quarter of 2022.

That means Arkansas’ 12 tire recycling districts will only be reimbursed for 68% of the costs they reported for April, May and June. 

In response, some tire recycling facilities —  like the largest of eight operating in the state, Davis Rubber Company in Little Rock —  have told retailers they won’t take anymore tires for the time being.

Piles of used tires are more than eyesores; they also pose significant economic and environmental problems.

“When processors stop, tires will stack up at every tire dealer in the state, and you will have a big environmental issue,” said Justin Sparrow, the executive director of the West River Valley Solid Waste District and current president of the state’s solid waste district association.

What happened?

How the problem reached this point isn’t totally clear to many in the industry, but like many sectors, inflation hit hard. 

A 2017 state law overhauled the state’s used tire program. It created the rim removal fee, a $3 fee all customers pay for the retail removal of used tires. (It’s only $1 if the tire is being replaced by a used tire.)

Retailers remit those fee collections to the state, and in exchange, may dispose of scrap tires at licensed facilities. (Individuals may dispose of up to four tires a month at state-permitted facilities free of charge.)

The rim removal fees fund the Tire Accountability Program, and it’s that revenue that fell short last quarter. When those shortfalls occur, the state makes up for it with surplus funds from the tire program that was in place before the 2017 law change.

But that surplus has been depleted.

The shortfall vexed many because tire sales have remained strong, even increasing in some areas.

Donnally Davis, the chief of communications for the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment, said the agency, which houses the Division of Environmental Quality, believes a combination of factors contributed to the shortfall.

“In discussions with waste tire districts, it is the Department’s understanding that several factors have contributed to the depletion of the surplus, including [a] 72% increase in diesel fuel from July 2021 to July 22, inflation, and the inability to supplant older transport vehicles and replacement parts due to shortages cause by the pandemic,” she said in an email.

Solutions

The energy department this week proposed a temporary solution, requesting $1 million from the state’s restricted reserve fund. The Arkansas Legislative Council plans to consider the request on Friday.

But that would only fix the problem temporarily, according to Sparrow and other solid waste officials across the state. They hope for a more permanent solution in January when the Arkansas Legislature convenes in regular session. 

An interactive version of this map of Arkansas’ used tire districts can be found here. (Source: Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality)

State Rep. Lanny Fite, R-Benton, said discussions about a permanent fix have already started. Fite, the chairman of the House City, County and Local Affairs Committee, sponsored the 2017 law that created the state tire program. 

“What [the problem] amounts to is like everything else: The price on those things was set in 2017. Like everything, fuel, labor and everything else has gone up,” he said Wednesday.

A multi-pronged problem

At Moore and Robinson’s tire and service center in North Little Rock, the used tire cage has started to fill up, manager Chris Jahns said. The shop usually disposes of well over 100 tires each week, and it was lucky the last pile of waste tires was picked up just before the tire recycling facility in Pulaski County stopped accepting tires. 

“Once we’re out of room, I don’t know what we’ll do,” Jahns said.

The Tire Shoppe on University Avenue in Little Rock stacks its waste tires neatly and keeps them clean, but it too will run out of room eventually, a manager said. 

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Craig Douglass, executive director of the Regional Recycling and Waste Reduction District in Pulaski County, noted that used tires pose environmental and health risks when not properly discarded. 

“If you don’t pick up waste tires, that is a public health problem,” Douglass said. “Right now, as those tires are stacking high, tires fill up with water. Then what happens? The science will tell you within seven days in stagnant water in tires mosquitoes lay eggs and hatch. Tire piles and dumps also attract rats and other disease-carrying vermin.”

Tire dumps can also catch fire, producing blazes that are difficult to extinguish and produce harmful toxins and heavy smoke.

The environmental risks are why the disposal of tires is so heavily regulated.

Most recycling facilities shred the rubber into playground mulch. Some of the shredded material can also be turned into tire-derived fuel for use in coal-fired power plants and cement plants. 

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Facilities also recycle the steel wire inside of tires.

Very small amounts of rubber make it to landfills, Sparrow said.

Douglass, though, also cited the economic costs of stopping the waste tire industry in its tracks. Not only does it cut off revenue for tire recycling plants, it also stops the work of companies that transport the tires from retail lots to the rubber facilities. 

“It’s a big problem,” he said.

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Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. He spent the better part of the last decade investigating and reporting on Arkansas government and politics. For three years, he covered education policy, medical marijuana and the Arkansas General Assembly as part of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. Hunter got his start in journalism covering sports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.

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