A line of men in orange vests and helmets formed a brigade, moving hundreds of mud-caked and water-filled auto and truck tires out of Proctor Creek and up the bank into waiting trucks.
I watched them from the middle of the stream where I stood in my rubber boots taking pictures and cheering them on.
For a year – in 1999 – these men mined trash from 37 miles of streams flowing through the city of Atlanta into the Chattahoochee River. Their job – a requirement of the settlement of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s lawsuit against the city for clean water violations – was to remove every piece of trash bigger than a cigarette butt.
When the project was completed, 568 tons of man-made debris had been pulled from city waterways, including 90 tons of tires. Lined up edge to edge, the tires would have stretched more than three and a half miles.
Sixteen years later, tires are still being pulled out of local rivers and their tributaries: nearly 200 were found in city streams and the Chattahoochee during the annual Sweep the Hooch event in April. That same month, the city of Atlanta collected more than 8,000 tires through an amnesty (free-disposal) program, recycling them into fuel, crumb rubber, mulch and urban asphalt.
Abandoned tires are unsightly and can cause environmental harm; however, the biggest threat to public health and safety is the fact that they collect rainwater and serve as fertile breeding grounds for mosquitos that can carry diseases such as the Zika virus.
This virus, which can cause serious birth defects and a neurological condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome, has significantly affected many countries in Latin America; the degree to which it will impact the United States remains uncertain, but precautions should be taken.
Statewide, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) estimates that it has removed about 15 million tires from illegal dumping places since a law passed in 1992 mandated a $1 fee on every tire sold in the state to support a cleanup trust fund.
While this number is impressive, much more could be accomplished to eradicate the tire problem, if our state legislators would appropriate all the funds collected each year for their intended purpose. During the 2016 legislative session, less than half of the money collected was appropriated to support cleanup, enforcement, education and local reimbursement programs.
Officials say that most of the illegal tire dumping is the result of “mom and pop” hauling operations that fail to properly dispose of the tires, instead off-loading them along roads, vacant lots, creeks and even in church dumpsters.
The midnight dumping increased during the Great Recession when government agencies lost inspection and enforcement staff. The city of Atlanta recently hired a code enforcement officer whose sole job is to handle scrap tires and EPD now has eight people working on the tire program throughout Georgia.
To keep our communities healthy and safe, we all need to pitch in and help: volunteer for a cleanup, report illegal tire dumping and dispose of your own tires properly. Importantly, tell your state legislators to put the trust back in the tire trust fund by appropriating all the money collected annually to get scrap tires out of our neighborhoods.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Keep Atlanta Beautiful
Contact to volunteer, report illegally dumped scrap tires or for questions at (404) 330-6721 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
City of Atlanta Recycle Day
Every third Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon at The Mall West End, 850 Oak St. Unlimited tire disposal at no charge.
The Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (ChaRM)
1110 Hill Street SE; Tuesday and Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. No charge for first two tires, each additional $2.
To find your state representatives, visit mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP.do
Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (chattahoochee.org), a nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect and restore the drinking water supply for nearly four million people.