The Modesto Pile

Reading a collection of John McPhee stories, I found several that were new to me. The Duty of Care, published in the New Yorker in 1993, is about tires, and how we do or don’t properly recycle them. One form of reuse we’ve mostly abandoned is retreads. McPhee writes:

A retread is in no way inferior to a new tire, but new tires are affordable, and the retreaded passenger tire has descended to the status of a clip-on tie.

My dad wore clip-on ties. He also used retreaded tires, and I can remember visiting a shop on several occasions to have the procedure done.

Recently I asked a friend: “Whatever happened to retreaded tires?” We weren’t sure, but figured they’d gone away for good reasons: safety, reliability. But maybe not. TireRecappers and TreadWright don’t buy those arguments. Maybe retreads were always a viable option for our passenger fleet, as they still are for our truck fleet. And maybe, with better tech, they’re better than they used to be.

In Duty of Care, McPhee tells the story of the Modesto pile. It was, at the time, the world’s largest pile of scrap tires containing, by his estimate, 34 million tires.

You don’t have to stare long at that pile before the thought occurs to you that those tires were once driven upon by the Friends of the Earth. They are Environmental Defense Fund tires, Rainforest Action Network tires, Wilderness Society tires. They are California Natural Resources Federation tires, Save San Francisco Bay Association tires, Citizens for a Better Environment tires. They are Greenpeace tires, Sierra Club tires, Earth Island Institute tires. They are Earth First! tires!

(I love a good John McPhee list.)

The world’s largest pile of tires left a surprisingly small online footprint, but you can find the LA Times’ Massive Pile of Tires Fuels Controversial Energy Plan which describes the power plant — 41 million dollars, 14 megawatts, “the first of its kind in the United States and the largest in the world” — that McPhee visited when researching his story. I found it on Google Maps by following McPhee’s directions.

If you were abandon your car three miles from the San Joaquin County line and make your way on foot southwest one mile…

You can see the power plant. There’s no evidence of tires, or trucks moving them, so maybe the plant, having consumed the pile, is retired. Fortunately it never caught fire, that would’ve made a hell of a mess.

According to Wikipedia, we’ve reduced our inventory of stockpiled tires by an order of magnitude from a peak of a billion around the time McPhee wrote that article. We burn most of them for energy, and turn some into ground rubber for such uses as paving and flooring. So that’s progress. But I can’t help but wonder about the tire equivalent of Amory Lovins’ negawatt: “A watt of energy that you have not used through energy conservation or the use of energy-efficient products.”

Could retreaded passenger tires be an important source of negawatts? Do we reject the idea just because they’re as unfashionable as clip-on ties? I’m no expert on the subject, obviously, but I suspect these things might be true.

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