Burning tires is most definitely renewable

April 8, 2010


— Rich Trzupek is a chemist and principal consultant at Mostardi Platt Environmental. He also writes for bigjournalism.com and frontpagemag.com on science, the environment and politics. The views expressed here are his own. —

Thanks to federal and state incentive programs, renewable energy is more prized and more profitable than ever.

Wind and solar energy are the best known forms of renewable power, but they don’t wholly define this particular universe.

Biomass combustion, hydroelectric power and geothermal derived energy all fall under the Department of Energy’s official definition of renewable energy.

Should recovering the energy contained in old tires be blessed with renewable tag as well? If we’re going to continue to follow the DOE’s guidelines and pursue its domestic energy goals, the answer is clearly “yes.”

(Geneva Energy, the tire incineration company that stands to gain from a proposed change to legislation in Illinois that would redefine renewable energy to include tire incineration, generates power by burning scrap tires.)

The energy contained in used tires is primarily tied up in three compounds: natural rubber, synthetic rubber and carbon black.

The first of these, natural rubber, is renewable by anyone’s definition of the word. (Can it be replaced by natural processes at a rate comparable or faster than its rate of consumption by humans?)

It’s derived from a plant, just like ethanol, wood, switchgrass and other biomass fuels. It would be foolish and inconsistent to call wood chips derived from a pine tree “renewable,” while claiming that latex derived from a rubber tree is not.

Synthetic rubber and carbon black are made from petroleum products, with a few exceptions, thus these compounds are not biomass.

However, we should also consider that used tires are a waste.

If we can find ways to recycle this waste, that’s great. There are in fact limited uses for old tires, some of which are shredded and used as playground cover, backfill, speed bumps, etc.

Yet, even with all of these means of recycling available, it’s not nearly enough. Americans discard about 250 million used tires per year and a large percentage end up in landfills or are illegally abandoned.

As much as we might wish otherwise, millions of old tires cannot be recycled and are therefore a waste, likely to end up in a landfill.

Like the other organic wastes buried in a landfill, the rubber in tires will slowly decay. As they decay, they create energy-rich landfill gas, which can then be burnt to generate power.

And here’s the kicker: when you generate energy using landfill gas, it’s considered renewable energy – another form of biomass.

Accordingly, does it really make sense to say that recovering energy from a tire today is not renewable, but waiting a couple of decades for the tire to decompose is renewable?

Renewable energy is supposed to involve fuel sources that are reliable, predictable and domestically available. Used tire combustion fits that definition, in every particular.


Image shows customers looking over the selection of tires and wheels in the parts department at the Burt GM auto dealer in Denver June 1, 2009. REUTERS/Rick Wilking


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Your crazy.

Posted by jwakeman | Report as abusive

I agree with a third of Mr. Trzupek defense of the ‘renewability’ of tyres: the natural rubber component is the most renewable of the three. The renewability of the other two components, which are derived from petroleum products, is argued for on the basis of some clever sophistry on the ‘biomass-ity’ of landfill contents. I beg to differ 2/3 of with Mr. Trzupek’s arguments, but I’ve enjoyed his piece.

Posted by hedagi | Report as abusive

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Posted by FreshlyGadgets|Gadgets | Report as abusive

It’s unbelievable how Rich Trzupek who is a chemist and principal consultant at Mostardi Platt Environmental believes burning tires is a source of renewable energy – what are you smoking?

That would be like saying municipal solid waste is renewable – no its not – its manmade! Nature doesn’t produce waste?

You should be ashamed of yourself – your either a lobbyist for the tire burning plants of your simply just environmentally ignorant. I suggest you go back to school – its people like you that keep the public misinformed.

The truth is, over 25 litres of crude oil and other petroleum based products go into the construction on 1 single passenger car tire. Never mind the oil supply chain that powered the factories that make the tires in the first place and the oil fuelled logistics supply chain that carries the tires to market so that we can buy them and put them on our cars which by the way are a product of the same petroleum supply chain and funnily enough run on petroleum – one big comfy cosy oil club – a top to bottom oil supply chain based on using more and more with no regard of the real cost of their products on the environment.

Now if we look at your stupid point of acknowledging the fact that, yes real rubber does comes from trees, and therefore it only make sense to place burning tires into the renewable energy category as you would pine tree’s – funny the last time I looked on the world commodity exchange I didn’t see pine trees on there? Nor did I hear state the facts that nowadays less than 10% of a today’s tires contains real rubber – rubber has been replaced with synthetics.

However any human with have an ounce of brain power understands that it makes far more sense to remanufacture or retread a tire when 75% of its energy and resource costs are accounted for in the construction and production of the tire casing. Therefore all tires should be 1st reused; ie as in put back on the road as a car tire and the ones cannot due to defective casings, etc should be recycled back into re-useable commodities thereby reducing resource cost and CO2 footprints verses digging up new resources on a open cycle vs closed loop.

Turning tires into garden mulch, play grounds for kids and rubber mats is not recycling, this is called downcycling – making useless products that require environmental subsidies for their manufacture and are of limited value – call these products for what they are – mini land fill materials!

You are plain and simply delusional and out of touch with reality to say burning tires is the right way to recycling them – do yourself a favour and retire, you’ve long since miss the supply chain memo.

Posted by eco-marc | Report as abusive