Is recycling the wrong answer to North America's problem in disposing of scrap tires and other automotive waste products? Have political leaders, in their zeal for product recycling rather than materials conservation, put the proverbial cart before the horse in working to rid the landscape of unsightly and dangerous tire piles and other solid wastes?
An article on page 15, ``Dealers to profit under Ventura (Calif.)'s tire program,'' describes a program to persuade motorists to buy longer-wearing tires and properly maintain them as one means of reducing the number entering the waste stream.
That approach called to mind the comments in a guest editorial published not long ago by Plastics News, one of TB's sister publications. The author of the column was Miles R. Wickstrom, a training facilitator for Puget Corp. in Portland, Ore., who contended that too much time, money and effort has been expended on costly and ineffective recycling of solid waste.
Recycling, he said, has become the ``Holy Grail'' of the environmental movement, where it seems constantly on the lips of consumers and the dockets of legislators.
The rallying cry, ``reduce, reuse and recyle,'' has gone out across the land, Mr. Wickstrom wrote. Yet few people realize that slogan-coined by the Environmental Protection Agency-was intended to indicate the hierarchy of resource management. This is the order in which the EPA recommended they be applied in managing the solid waste stream and preserving natural resources.
Mr. Wickstrom argued that any nation serious about managing its resources must first act to reduce the amount of materials it uses. As a less-attractive second alternative, it should attempt to reuse those materials. Only then should it turn to recycling-the least-effective alternative.
Yet for whatever reasons, recycling has been given preference by politicians and environmentalists alike. By what logic, asked Mr. Wickstrom, can our society use, as the centerpiece of its resource-management strategy, a second tier of business entities dependent on a high-value waste stream for their livelihood?
``Brace yourself,'' he advised readers, ``materials with a consistently high value are not likely to become key components of the waste stream.'' He pointed to the lack of profitability among the majority of recycling firms as evidence.
It is shortsighted to focus effort on the least-viable alternative, he said. ``That is like building more burn centers as the preferred way of dealing with children who play with matches.''
EPA's first-recommended option-source reduction-works differently. Rather than creating the costly sorting and reprocessing infrastructure required for recycling, a governmental policy employing source reduction would seek to manage solid waste before it becomes a disposal problem.
Some might argue that almost no price is too great to pay to protect the only planet we've got. But Mr. Wickstrom makes an equally convincing argument that too high a price makes neither economic nor common sense.
People, he said, have a limit to how much they are willing to spend without seeing evidence of tangible, positive results. ``And the unfortunate truth,'' he said, ``is that recycling alone will at best have only a marginal effect on the quality of the environment.''
Eventually, the public will notice that air quality has not noticeably improved, natural habitat continues to be lost and strip mines continue to grow, the cost of trash removal has skyrocketed and the curbs are lined each week with full recycling bins, he said. When the high cost and low rewards of recycling finally are realized, the environmental movement will face a public backlash.
This doesn't mean all recycling efforts should be stopped, Mr. Wickstrom said. On the contrary, every pound of reusable material that goes to the landfill is a ``lost opportunity.''
``However, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Three Rs are not recycle, recycle, recycle,'' he wrote. ``It (recycling), like sunbathing, may feel good. But the hidden costs and consequences are too great to be ignored.''
In the case of tires, Mr. Wickstrom is right about recycling's inability to stand on its own without the artificial supports of government subsidies and tipping fees. The Three Rs of tire resource management should stand for reduced consumption, retreading and recycling.
As an industry and as consumers, we do a pretty fair job of following this progression when it comes to highway truck tires. However, the same cannot be said for other types-particularly passenger tires-many of which are scrapped long before necessary due to consumer neglect and the lack of retreading. Too many of these tires are being used haphazardly and cast aside to become a pollution problem. Maybe it's time we brushed up on our own particular Three Rs.
Mr. Slaybaugh is executive editor of TIRE BUSINESS.