Privatization, more fees among proposals to fix Arkansas’ tire recycling problem

Scrap tire program ran out of money in 2nd quarter, prompting an audit and recycling stoppages

By: - December 22, 2022 6:00 am

Tires sit on the side of the street in east Little Rock recently. Problems continue with the state’s system for disposing of old tires. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

The architect of Arkansas’ waste tire disposal program plans to introduce legislation to dismantle it and privatize the disposal of worn rubber.

The state Legislature will be forced to take action on the Tire Accountability Program because it ran out of money to reimburse scrap tire processors in August

The shortfall triggered an ongoing audit — expected to be complete in the coming months — of the state program and local tire recycling districts by Arkansas Legislative Audit. 

Lawmakers in October approved $1 million in stop-gap funding to shore up the program until the General Assembly convenes in regular session next month. 

State Rep. Lanny Fite (R-Benton), who sponsored the 2017 law that created the tire program, said in an interview that he has drafted a bill to eliminate it. 

Rather than having the state administer the program and levy a special fee on tires, Fite said his legislation would shift the burden of disposal to tire retailers, recyclers and collectors.

“You can never go wrong with privatizing,” he said.

State Rep. Lanny Fite (R-Benton)

Still, some worry that a completely private program could negatively affect tire retailers in rural Arkansas — where there would be little profit motive for recyclers to serve. The result? More hazardous tire dumps like those that prompted the 2017 legislation.

The problem

Fite’s 2017 law overhauled the state’s used tire program and 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 during the 2nd quarter of this year. When those shortfalls occur, the state made 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, and the $3 fee is inadequate to cover the costs of the program. 

Inflation and high fuel prices have made matters worse.

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When the program ran out of money in August, some tire recycling facilities stopped accepting scrap tires, leaving piles of old tires to collect at car dealerships and tire shops. 

A recycling program is necessary because tires sitting in dumps or landfills create a host of public health hazards. 

They fill up with water, attracting mosquitoes, rats and other disease-carrying varmint. And tires can take hundreds of years to decompose in landfills. 

Fite’s solution

Fite is drafting and revising his bill before sending it out for input from industry stakeholders after New Year’s.

The $3 rim removal fee isn’t enough to cover the costs of the program, Fite said, and privatizing will allow retailers’ fees to be more dynamic.

“Prices will be able to fluctuate with the free market, and as I say, we will end up monitoring to make sure there is not tire dumping or a need for mitigation of a site,” he said. “We will have a fee on that to take care of those issues.”

Loads of tires sit on trailers at Davis Rubber Company in east Little Rock. Davis Rubber runs the largest tire recycling facility in the state. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Other proposals

The association of tire districts in the state plans to propose an alternative. Instead of eliminating the state program, they hope to fix some of its shortfalls. 

“We’ve been working on a bill to improve the collection mechanism that would expand collection to cover more tires,” said Craig Douglass, executive director of the Regional Recycling and Waste Reduction District in Pulaski County. “We think the current program is missing tires, particularly at the wholesale level.”

Douglass said there has also been some discussion about proposing an increased rim removal fee for truck tires. That would include raising the fee to $5, the same amount charged for truck tires before the scrap tire program’s 2017 overhaul.

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Justin Sparrow, the executive director of the West River Valley Solid Waste District and current president of the state’s solid waste district association, also said the group’s proposal would likely propose a fee on tires sold on new cars. 

Sparrow said he would like to see the final version of Fite’s bill, but he does have reservations about privatization. 

“There are details to work out on any of these bills, but everyone recognizes that there’s a need to do something different,” he said.

The Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment, which administers the Tire Accountability Program, doesn’t plan to offer any legislation or fixes during the session, according to Chief of Staff April Golden.

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Fite expects opposition because it’s a large, controversial issue.

“I think this is the best way to solve the problem,” he said of privatization. “There will probably be problems in it still — any program with this size will have issues.”

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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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