Perceived as a win-win way to get rid of the tires filling Florida landfills by putting them to use as an artificial reef off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, about two million tires were bound with metal clips and dumped in the Atlantic Ocean back in 1972.
The tire reef project was organized by Ray McAllister, an ocean engineering professor at Florida Atlantic University, and was approved by the US Army Corps of Engineers.
It’s no surprise that a big supporter of the project was the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company.
“Our research studies, as well as the studies of others, reveal that tires are not harmful to the marine environment and, unlike many other reef-building materials, will last indefinitely,” wrote Goodyear Engineering Manager Richard D. Candle in a 1983 paper.
Decades later, the project has turned out to be a terrible idea.
It seems like anyone with a basic knowledge of science would have understood the effect of water on metal and how, after time, the metal clips might rust away – which is just what they did. The two million tires they once held in place were spread apart by ocean currents, likely destroying any marine life that had managed to grow on them.
Now there’s a 35-acre landfill on the ocean floor. Instead of saving coral, the tires are damaging the natural reef.
While Goodyear may think its tires are safe for marine life, “They’re a constantly killing coral destruction machine,” William Nuckols, coordinator for Coastal America, told CBS News in 2007, when salvage operations first began off the Florida coast. Coastal America is an alliance of government agencies and private organizations working together to protect marine ecosystems.
McAllister’s heart was apparently in the right place all those years ago. “The really good idea was to provide habitat for marine critters so we could double or triple marine life in the area,” he told CBS News in 2007. “It just didn’t work that way. I look back now and see it was a bad idea.”
Although tires are fortunately no longer being used to create artificial reefs in many areas, these reefs still exist around the world.
“We’ve literally dumped millions of tires in our oceans,” Jack Sobel, a senior Ocean Conservancy scientist, told CBS News in 2007. “I believe that people who were behind the artificial tire reef promotions actually were well intentioned and thought they were doing the right thing. In hindsight, we now realize that we made a mistake.”
“Tires for as Far as You Can See”
In the eight years since that CBS News report, about 72,000 tires have been removed from the Fort Lauderdale coast by military divers. A two-year operation that began this month will remove about 90,000 additional tires. But more than half a million will be left behind, damaging the 7,000-year-old natural reef.
“There are just tires for as far as you can see,” Pat Quinn, a Broward County biologist and local manager for the current project, told the Los Angeles Times. “People who see it for the first time come to the surface and say, ‘Oh, my God.'”
Thomas Pennypacker, one of the divers removing the tires, has seen the massive underwater landfill firsthand. “Right now it’s just a wasteland. It’s tires everywhere,” he told CBS News. “Now we need to correct it before it does additional damage.”
On a good day, Pennypacker said he and other divers remove about 600 tires from the ocean floor.
Is Using the Tires to Generate Electricity Another Bad Idea?
The tires are being taken to an energy plant, where they’re being used to generate electricity – yet another recycling idea that may be well-intentioned but environmentally unsound.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that tire-derived fuels are a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
However, like coal, when tires burn, they release carbon carcinogens, according to Neil Carman, a clean air director with the Sierra Club.
“The EPA needs to change its daily standards,” he told the Michigan Free Press. “Tires are a dirty fuel.”
Here’s my own well-intentioned idea for all those tires: Recycle them as materials for eco-friendly, low-maintenance sidewalks. Unlike concrete, rubber sidewalks don’t suffocate tree roots nor are they buckled by them, which could help prevent the removal of trees.
As the Washington Post once noted, “Rubber sidewalks – good for the trees, easier on the knees, no cracks to break your mother’s back.”