Late last week, on an otherwise hum-drum news day, a notice came in indicating Michigan was contemplating a $5 environmental levy on retreaded tires. That livened up the newsroom. Placing a surcharge on what has to be recycling's posterchild product is silly enough, but wait until you hear why.
Retreading is already one of the most efficient forms of recycling. Why tax it further? Photo by Jim Park.
Retreading is already one of the most efficient forms of recycling. Why tax it further? Photo by Jim Park.

Michigan State Representative Douglas Geiss (D-Taylor) would like to see a fee of $5 tacked on to all retreaded tires to cover the cost of collecting all the tire debris from Michigan's highways -- debris he says comes from retreaded tires. And he's serious about it. On Oct. 5, Geiss introduced House Bill No. 5037, a bill to amend 1994 PA 451, entitled "Natural resources and environmental protection act," by adding part 176 -- the retread fee.

The text of the bill reads in part, [Money collected through such fees will be used to] ... "support retread tire recycling, cleanup of roadside waste from deteriorated retread tires (my emphasis), and other recycling and litter cleanup in this state."

Sounds like Mr. Geiss just wants to rid the highways of litter, and he wants us to pick up the tab for the clean up. It's ironic, as David Stevens, managing director of Tire Retread & Repair Information Bureau, points out, that Geiss' bill "would amend the Environmental Protection Act by damaging one of the most environmentally friendly products around."

Retread tires have one of the highest post-consumer contents of any recycled product in the world. As well, pound for pound, a road-ready retreaded truck tire requires less than a third of the oil needed to build a virgin tire. Retreads are about as green as you can get.

While slapping a $5 fee on retreaded tires likely wouldn't dissuade current fans of retreads from continuing to use them, it would needlessly suck a lot of money out of our pockets, returning almost zero value for the cost.

But here's the single worst assumption in Giess' proposal -- that retreaded tires should be targeted because they are the source of all those alligators laying at roadside

As Harvey Brodsky of the Retread Tire Association puts it, "To blame retreads for tire debris on our highways, in Michigan and elsewhere, is the same as blaming a vehicle for an accident caused by a drunk driver. The blame is simply misplaced."

And there's a little more irony here: The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in 2008 did an extensive study on roadside tire debris, "Commercial Medium Tire Debris Study." The definitive body of research on truck tire debris came from a university in Geiss' home state, for heaven's sake! It took me less than a minute to bring up the study in a Google search. A similar minute invested by Mr. Giess might have saved the taxpayers of that great state a ton of money drafting this silly bill and walking it along as far as it has already come.

Hopefully all the paper that has already been wasted on this will be recycled.

UMTRI on Tire Debris

While the study goes into exhaustive detail on retreaded tires and tires in general, UMTRI concluded, by examining actual alligators picked up at roadside in several locations around the country, that number of retreaded tires that died untimely deaths mirrors the percentage or retreaded tires in service compared to virgin tires.

"The analysis of tire fragments and casings collected in this study has found that the proportion of tire debris from retread tires and OE tires is similar to the estimated proportion of retread and OE tires in service. Additionally, there was no evidence to suggest that the proportion of tire fragments/shreds from retread tires was overrepresented in the debris items collected," the study concludes.

The study also found that most tire failures -- virgin or retread -- were the result of road hazards, not neglect or poor manufacturing.

"Examination of tire fragments and tire casings (where the OE or retread status was known) found that road hazard was the most common cause of tire failure, at 38% and 36% respectively. The analysis of tire casings found maintenance and operational issues accounted for 32% of the failures while over-defection accounted for 16%. Analysis of tire fragments found that excessive heat was evident in 30% of the samples examined. These results suggest that the majority of tire debris found on the Nation's highways is not a result of manufacturing/process deficiencies. Similar findings are corroborated in earlier studies of tire debris."

So, the much-maligned retread takes it on the chin again, thanks to a well-intentioned but ill-informed member of the Michigan House of Representatives.

Fortunately, the Michigan House is controlled by Republicans, so the bill likely won't go anywhere. Still, it supplied a little levity on pretty unremarkable day in the newsroom. It was fun while it lasted.

If you want to dig into the cause and effect of tire failures, the UMTRI study provides some interesting and valuable insight. You can find it here.