Tires are a necessity for a car-driving society like ours, but there are some environmental considerations to ponder when choosing what your car will ride along on. The most important two issues are related to the consumption of fossil fuels. For one, there's the petroleum consumed to manufacture them and then there's the excess gasoline used to propel cars running on underinflated tires. A third important environmental problem is the disposal and/or storage of waste tires. Thankfully, a few simple steps taken by consumers nationwide can get us rolling down greener paths.
Over 230 million replacement automobile and light truck tires are purchased in the United States each year. Each of these passenger automobile tires contains an average of 2.5 gallons of petroleum. In other words, about 1.6 million gallons of petroleum are used to manufacture tires for US consumption each day. The US consumed nearly 874 million gallons of petroleum each day in 2005 (385 million gallons of which were consumed as gasoline, or 44 percent of total consumption), and currently imports nearly 66 million gallons of petroleum from Saudi Arabia each day.
Fuel consumption and poorly maintained tires
There are over 160 million cars and light trucks in the US, and over 126 billion gallons of gasoline are consumed by them each year. If every vehicle in the US maintained the proper tire air pressure, up to 600 million gallons of gas could be saved per year.
Thirty percent of all of the carbon dioxide emitted each year in the US comes from cars and light trucks. If every car and light truck in the US maintained the proper tire air pressure, up to 11 billion fewer pounds of carbon dioxide would be emitted by drivers each year.
There are also at least 275 million used tires being stored as waste in the United States, which pose substantial environmental challenges due to the risk of fire and possible leaching of chemicals into the soil. Although major tire fires occur infrequently, the environmental impact can be massive. For example, a 7-million tire fire in Rhinehart, VA in 1983 burned for nine months, created a plume of smoke 3,000 feet high and nearly 50 miles long, deposited emissions in three states, and contaminated nearby water sources with lead and arsenic. Used tires are also a breeding ground for mosquitoes because of the stagnant water that collects in them.
Approximately 290 million scrap tires were generated in 2003. There are markets for about 80 percent of the scrap tires generated annually. Scrap tires are used as fuel (approximately 45 percent of the waste tire market), and can be recycled into a variety of other products. Approximately 20 percent of the waste tire market is recycled or used in civil engineering projects, 12 percent are ground up and used in asphalt for roads and tracks, and about 3 percent of the tires are exported. 27 million tires end up in landfills or monofills each year, and the remainder are stockpiled pending future use or disposal.
Related health issues
There are numerous possible health issues related to the manufacturing and disposal of motor vehicle tires. During the manufacturing process, toxic chemicals such as hexane, toluene, formaldehyde, styrene, and volatile organic compounds are released into the air, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has mandated strict regulations regarding their emissions.
Tire fires can release significant amounts of air pollution, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), benzene, styrene, phenols, and butadiene. Oil and heavy metals may exude into the local soil and surface water during a tire fire, which can trigger Superfund cleanup status.
Pests such as rodents and mosquitoes may live and breed in scrap tire piles. Several varieties of mosquitoes can carry deadly diseases, including West Nile Virus, encephalitis, and dengue fever.
- Green Car Congress
- Green Diamond Tires
- Retread Tire Buyers Guide
- Rubber Manufacturers Association
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Final Rule Reducing Toxic Air Pollutants From Rubber Tire Manufacturing Facilities
- California Integrated Waste Management Board - Evaluation of Employee Health Risk from Open Tire Burning
- Energy Information Administration - Petroleum Products Consumption
- Energy Information Administration - US Imports by Country of Origin
- Green Seal - Low Rolling Resistance Tires
- SAE International - The Effects of Tire Inflation Pressure on Passenger Car Fuel Consumption
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Management of Scrap Tires
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Management of Scrap Tires: Tire Fires
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Management of Scrap Tires: Basic Information
- US Centers for Disease Control - Mosquito-Borne Diseases