Of Tires and Tubes

What do tires have in common with computers? They both need to be changed every three or four years, and they both feed into a growing solid-waste stream.

Of course, tires have been a problem in this regard a lot longer than high-tech gear. In developed countries as many as half the discarded tires may be converted into usable scrap, such as fill for highway construction. But that still leaves hundreds of millions of spent tires each year to pile up, leach pollutants into the soil, and pose grave fire hazards.

Cast-off electronic equipment - outmoded processors, printers, monitors, and televisions - presents its own set of problems. High among them is the lead content in cathode-ray tubes in computer monitors and TVs. The problem could balloon in the next five or six years, as the government-imposed deadline for broadcasters to move from analog (the current system) to digital signals nears. Stacks of old TVs could start to rival those of old tires.

But there's some hope, on both fronts. Goodyear, whose founder inadvertently began the pile-up 160 years ago by inventing vulcanized rubber used in tires, has patented a process that, in essence, reverses vulcanization. A tire's natural rubber polymers are salvaged, free of impurities. So far, good results have been confined to a lab. The goal is to move, within a few years, toward industrial-scale salvage operations.

Regarding computer screens and televisions, the key is collection centers with the capacity to take in large volumes of old machines and preserve their cathode-ray tubes for reuse, or for recycling to recover the lead. A few communities already have such programs. Many more are needed.

That means governmental regulators, at all levels, will have to do all they can to encourage these efforts. Federal environmental regulators, for example, should change rules that might restrict the collection of old computers and TVs because of their "hazardous" components. This work needs to be done as quickly, and as extensively, as possible.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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