Tire incineration is not renewable energy

April 7, 2010


— Brian Schwartz and Cindy Parker are both physicians and faculty in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. They are also both Fellows of the Post Carbon Institute. The opinions expressed are solely their own. —

How do you solve a problem like David Miller?

According to the Chicago Tribune, he is the Illinois representative who last month, with little fanfare and notice at the time, attempted to modify legislation to include tire burning in the state’s definition of renewable energy.

The bill failed to pass initially but it isn’t dead yet – supporters may attempt to add it to another bill before the General Assembly adjourns.

The amendment was mainly done to allow a company called Geneva Energy to obtain green energy credits for its incinerator in Ford Heights, a village in Cook County approximately 25 miles south of downtown Chicago.

In 2000, the village was 96 percent African-American and had a per capita income less than $9,000, making it one of the poorest suburbs in the United States.

The incinerator has had difficulty complying with environmental regulations regarding its pollution and toxic releases at the site, the Tribune reports.

After Rep. Miller changed the language in the bill, and concern from environmental groups increased, he removed his name from the bill and recently absolved himself of all responsibility by declaring it “no longer his bill.”

Through our public health lens, one with which we try to maximize the health and well-being of populations of people, there are several aspects of this that are very wrong.

To start with, we must get serious about real renewable energy.

When polls document that Americans understand little about energy, what it is, where it comes from, and that all energy sources have downsides that must be considered over the short and long terms, we cannot add to the confusion by labeling tire burning a form of renewable energy. It is not.

Tires are made from many chemicals, including those derived from fossil fuels.

Burning tires contributes to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, as carbon previously safely stored deep underground in the form of complex hydrocarbons in petroleum is released as carbon dioxide after combustion.

Renewable energy does not rely on finite resources like coal, natural gas, petroleum, or uranium. It relies on self-replenishing resources like the sun, wind, tides, waves, and geothermal.

Burning tires also releases many toxicants, the formal name for chemical poisons, which cause local health effects.

These toxicants include those that can cause cancer, heart disease, asthma and other lung problems, and nervous system problems such as cognitive dysfunction from heavy metals.

There is no doubt that burning tires is the least desirable way to dispose of them.

We must not burden poor communities with environmental hazards. Plenty of data suggest the continued preferential siting of undesirable activities in such places like Ford Heights, whose residents are poor minorities with little political influence or voice.

And siting of tire incinerators in these communities contributes mightily to their ongoing disadvantage.

There is growing recognition of the myriad health effects of such operations, which create a “positive” feedback loop that helps ensure that those living in poverty remain in poverty.

This is a form of environmental inequity, or environmental injustice, which should no longer be allowed to contribute to health disparities between more affluent and disadvantaged communities.

Why do these silly things continue to happen in legislatures all over the country?

At least in part, this is because of the influence of money in politics.

As Jim Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies has argued, in reference to developing real solutions to climate change, until we achieve real campaign finance reform we are unlikely to be able to achieve real and sensible solutions to a variety of environmental and public health problems, including tire incineration in disadvantaged communities, climate change, mountaintop removal coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains, and continued over-building of low-density, single use, non-walkable, and automobile-centered patterns of land use called “sprawl,” itself a cause of many other public health and environmental problems.

Finally, we must make corporations accountable for their actions.

We must change corporate laws so that these are no longer a vehicle for the privatization of profit and the socialization of risk.

We must also hold our elected officials accountable for making laws that force corporations to think not only about short-term profits, but also about public health and well-being, at the community level on up to the global level.

Until we do, we will continue to chase our tail in protection of the public’s health, always reacting to bad and silly decisions made only in search of short-term profit and power without consideration of the myriad other effects these decisions have.


Image shows illegally dumped tires at the abandoned and decaying Packard Motor Car Manufacturing plant near downtown Detroit, Michigan June 21, 2009.  REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

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