Every time you buy a new tire, you pay a $1.75 fee into a state recycling fund, but NBC7 Investigates found tires are not recycled with the money.
Many end up as hazardous waste in San Diego’s border region.
“Of course I don’t want my home built on tires, but I have nothing else, what can I do?” Ana reluctantly stands outside of her Nuevo Milenio home in Tijuana, explaining to a San Diego news crew why she uses hundreds of tires as the foundation for her home.
“Of course it’s dangerous. If it rains, my home could wash right down this hill and into the street,” she says in Spanish. “Again, what can I do about it?”
A widow with three children and two grandchildren living in a small makeshift shack in Tijuana, Ana resells discarded items a family member scavenges from alleyways and dumpsters in San Diego. She declined to give her last name.
Down the dirt road a bit, Candrea Gonzalez-Montes explains how the tires are embedded for erosion control into the hill on which her home and the small tienda her family owns precariously sit.
“For the moment, we’re happy to have them (the tires). We don’t have any other resources for protection, so they’re very necessary for the moment,” she explains in Spanish.
Gonzalez-Montes hopes Tijuana city officials will step-in and improve her squatter village’s sprawling unsanctioned development with materials like concrete and infrastructure improvements, but she isn’t holding her breath.
She knows living so close to thousands of tires may have a negative impact on her health, but stresses that people in her community are resourceful and use what material they have.
“Yes, it worries us because it seems like it wouldn’t affect you but then it does affect you, for example my baby gets sick, or sometimes the tires catch on fire and breathing that in gives you asthma,” she said, pointing out tires that have slipped into the creek and are now filled with fouling water and hosting mosquitos.
The Tire Recycling Management Fund
Every year, as many as four million California tires end up south of the border in Tijuana.
It starts at the auto store, when you buy a tire and pay a fee to CalRecycle’s tire recycling management fund.
Last year, that fund had a $60 million ending balance, but despite being named the “Recycling Management Fund,” the money is not used for recycling tires.
CalRecycle spokesman Mark Oldfield said state law dictates how the money is spent, which is on tracking haulers, oversight of hauling operations and storage of tires for later recycling and, most importantly, to help create a U.S. market for recycled tire material.
"We don't actually engage in the recycling of tires. Private businesses do it," Oldfield said.
According to data on its website, CalRecycle permits nearly 1,200 haulers across the state to pick up tires from tire stores or storage facilities and transport them, sometimes to the border or to ships bound for Asia.
“Keep in mind that there are some 40 million used and waste tires produced in California every year that have to be hauled somewhere, so the number of tire haulers is certainly going to be somewhat proportionate to the number of tires that have to be hauled,” Oldfield said.
Click in the interactive story map below to see how a tire moves from California to Mexico and then sometimes, back to California.
The agency funds about $7.5 million a year for enforcement and another half million a year on the hauler and manifest program, according to its July 2013 five-year plan.
“They have to manifest how many tires they haul, where they take them and they have to indicate to us that they’re taking them to an approved end-use or end destination, whether that’s a storage facility or perhaps to a port for export because there is demand for this commodity,” Oldfield said.
So, after you get new tires, the old ones might be sold to haulers who are permitted by the state to take them to the border, where they are resold at thousands of llanterias, tire stores, that line the U.S.-Mexico border.
Then the tires are put on Mexico vehicles and used sometimes until the tread is bald. Finally, they are discarded again to folks like Ana and Candrea who put them to use as fixtures of Tijuana architecture.
When it rains, the loose tires wash down Tijuana hills into canals and right back across the U.S.-Mexico border into the Tijuana River Valley.
It’s then that CalRecycle steps in and cleans up the mess.
In 2009, the agency managed a $1.6 million grant to clean up tires and other pollution in in the Tijuana River Valley and Goat Canyon Estuary in Border Field State Park. It also awarded $2.27 million in clean-up grants to local jurisdictions in the area since 2005.
Environmental Groups Want More Done
Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina said the agency isn't doing enough.
“Frankly, everybody in California should know that when they pay a tire recycling fee, it’s not being used for recycling and that is outrageous and it’s unacceptable,” Dedina said.
Oldfield clarified that the fee is not actually called a “tire recycling fee” but rather just a “tire fee.” That fee goes into the California Tire Recycling Management Fund, which according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget spent $30.3 million in fiscal year 2013-2014, but ended the year with a $60.2 million fund balance.
For years, lawmakers have struggled with fixing what people are calling a broken system.
“We know that it’s not the most effective way to spend those CalRecycle dollars to just clean-up the Tijuana River Valley every once in a while when the pile of tires gets too high,” said former state senator Denise Ducheny.
Ducheny authored legislation (SB-167) in 2009 that she thought gave CalRecycle the authority to recycle tires south of the border, where she says the cost is much lower.
The environmental group WiLDCOAST estimates it costs $30,000 to recycle 2,000 tires at La Pasa, a recycling center on the eastern outskirts of Tijuana. On the contrary, it costs the state government millions to clean up fewer tires after they cross back into United States and become hazardous waste, the environmental group argues.
CalRecycle says there’s no legal way to spend money from its $60 million fund to clean up tires in Mexico.
“This is a fee that’s paid for by Californians to manage tires in California, so there’s a constitutional issue. Where can you spend a California fee? Well, you have to spend it in California,” Oldfield said.
The entire discrepancy comes down to just six words in Ducheny’s approximately 1,800 word bill.
According to SB-167, money can be spent recycling tires that are “eventually disposed of in California.”
CalRecycle interprets those words very literally, saying it can’t touch the tires until they move back across the border into California.
Legal Analyst Dan Eaton said the law would allow for money to be spent on programs in Mexico, but there’s an important limitation.
“How do you exactly tell which tires are ‘Mexico tires’ and which tires are ‘California tires’ that are coming across the border and causing environmental pollution here? That’s the tricky thing,” Eaton said.