How California's recycled tires turn into smog over the state

California has implemented a system that ensures more of its tires get recycled. But some of its scrap tires end up as exports that then turn into pollution overseas.

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters/File
Traffic moves on the arrival level of Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California (November 21, 2012).

California drivers generate 40 million used tires every year, and everyone from sellers to policymakers has struggled to figure out what to do with them.

Old tires can be burned as fuel, or end up in landfills.

But California lawmakers want more tires to be recycled--and created an elaborate infrastructure to see that they were.

There's just one thing those environmentally-minded lawmakers didn't count on.

Over the past year, large numbers of tires have been exported from California to Asia, and they've come back across the ocean as smog, according to a recent report by TakePart.

A system of regulations and incentives has ensured that more used tires in California are recycled.

But increases in the price of Australian coal and Southeast Asian natural rubber threw a wrench into the system.

Recycling was never the cheapest option, and Asian buyers looking to burn tires as fuel in factories or use their rubber in new tires were eager to take something everyone else wanted to get rid of.

So instead of going to recycling facilities, tires started getting compressed into "bales" and sent overseas.

Exports are a negligible part of California's scrap tire market in 2007, but they increased steadily in 2008 and 2009, according to CalRecycle--the agency in charge of California's recycling scheme.

In 2010, exports doubled to about one fifth of the market. In 2011, they were a quarter of the market.

And all of those exported tires have come back to haunt Californians.

Pollution from China can cross the Pacific Ocean and affect California air.

While Western states significantly reduce pollution between 2005 and 2010, their air quality remained the same because of a simultaneous increase in emissions from China, according to a 2015 study by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

In addition to contributing to excess emissions, the exports also starved California's tire market of material, potentially damaging the state's ability to recycle tires on a large scale.

In 2013 and 2014, though, China's economy slowed, and the price of Australian coal decreased.

This ended the period of rampant exports, and analysts believe California's recycling infrastructure will recover.

In fact, lawmakers are pushing even more aggressive goals.

A bill  signed in 2011--during the height of the tire-export mania--calls for the state recycle 75 percent of its solid waste by 2020.

To help meet that goal, proposed Assembly Bill 1239 would add another fee to the one the state already charges on new tires.

This would help fund additional measures by CalRecycle to incentivize recycling.

This article first appeared at GreenCarReports.

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