On December 4, a bill seeking to redefine "renewable energy" passed in the Michigan House. This bill redefines "renewable energy" to include burning hazardous waste, including tires.
This first step in the law-making process triggered an outcry among environmental groups that claim this form of energy production will have a negative impact on the environment. While there's anticipation awaiting the Senate's vote, citizens need to educate themselves and consider the potential environmental effects of burning tires and other hazardous waste.
To do this, let's take a look at the 1997 EPA case study:
In this late 1990s study, the EPA assessed the environmental effects of burning tires as fuel at paper mills. One mill it studied used tire burning as 4% of its fuel supply. This mill was equipped with a wet scrubber as its pollution control device. The results were as follows:
- Mercury emissions increased by 111%
- Zinc emissions increased by 1,391%
In the same study, the EPA found that a different paper mill, which was equipped with an electrostatic precipitator as its pollution control device and burned tires as only 2% of its fuel supply, still produced a negative environmental impact. Emission increases included: sulfur dioxide by 48%, carbon monoxide by 33%, mercury by 20%, zinc by 19%, benzene by 20% and hexavalent chromium by 179%.
These results show that tire burning creates an abundant increase in metallic air pollution. To top it off, the generation scale of a paper mill is much smaller than what would come from potential power plants that would utilize this process in Michigan.
Should "renewable energy" only include self-generating sources?
Most environmentalists believe "renewable energy" should come from a renewable, self-generating source. Tires and other hazardous materials have to be produced by humans. It's not like harnessing wind, water or sun – sources that will continue to renew themselves on their own. Yes, consumers will continue to use tires and they will build up, but they do not produce themselves.
There's not an endless supply of tires, so what do we do when we eradicate the built-up tire waste and run out of tires to burn? More importantly, one of the main reasons governments are passing laws that set renewable energy quotas is to prevent environmental threats, such as emissions. One would think the EPA wants utilities to cut back on toxic air pollution, not find another way to go about creating pollution that hasn't been as demonized as coal. Do we really want hazardous waste combustion to be considered "renewable energy?"
So where do we go from here?
All of these emissions are the result of the chemical breakdown that occurs when burning tires. While tires, themselves, are not considered hazardous, the metal-abundant chemical breakdown that takes place during burning is chock full of fine particles and hazardous chemicals that increase this form of air pollution. However, the EPA does not regulate these metals as it does other emissions, such as carbon dioxide. The lack of regulation makes this a tough argument from a legal standpoint even though environmentalists see these emissions as hazardous. In fact, because of the lax EPA standards, other areas of the country use tire burning for energy generation despite great opposition.
It's easy to assume what Michigan is attempting to do through this legal redefinition of "renewable energy." As a former leader in car manufacturing, they are likely to have more tire waste than most areas. On top of that, there is no known decomposition time for tires. They are not an organic material, therefore they do not break down on their own; they require friction and other wearing aids to decompose. Tire decomposition may take centuries in a landfill, or it could take thousands of years without any added help. Scientists still do not know.
Disposing of these tires by burning them as "renewable energy" fuel will help Michigan meet the renewable energy quota established when the original bill was passed. It may seem like a quick, win-win fix for these two issues, but the environmental consequences of doing it may outweigh having a landfill full of tires for hundreds of years. However, in order to effectively assess this, the EPA must begin studying and regulating metallic chemical air pollution with the stringency of other forms of emissions to ensure they do not pose a threat to both the environment and humans. In the meantime, let's hope that if this Michigan bill becomes law, hazardous waste combustion will only become a fraction of energy production until we know it's safe.