Ward 1 Councilman Terrell Pruitt was the first to speak up at an economic development committee meeting last week after execs from Vadxx energy gave a courtesy presentation about their proposed new plant on the east side. It's a plant that will convert up to 60 tons of plastics into crude oil every day and provide jobs and cutting-edge eco-friendliness to the region.
Terrell Pruitt didn't give a shit about cutting-edge eco-friendliness. He wanted to know about tires.
The conversation that morning had centered mostly on the technical aspects of the conversion process -- pyrolosis -- a closed heating system without oxygen that won't produce nasty odors and will be considerably more attractive than earlier alternative energy plans by the city.
Vadxx's 10,000-square-foot facility is slated for construction near the intersection of E. 79th and St. Clair (in Councilman Jeff Johnson's Ward 8) with corporate headquarters in the midtown technology park. CEO Jim Garrett hopes to be fully operational by the middle of 2014.
Virtually everything about the project sounds beneficial for Cleveland: the economic boon of jobs for the region; the renown of housing headquarters of a soon-to-be global company; the opportunity to recycle local resources while shedding costs of transport to faraway landfills; the absence of controversy regarding allocation of taxpayer dollars, etc.
But the Vadxx plant won't solve the city's tire problem.
Tires are one of the many materials Vadxx is willing to accept in their patented conversion process. Among the others are mixed plastics, "autofluff" -- plastic-ish car parts from shredded vehicles -- hospital plastics, E-waste (computers and their sundry digital components), carpets, industrial waste. Tons of stuff.
The primary argument against tires is that the conversion to oil is much less efficient. Jim Garrett estimated that the pyrolosis process typically produces 80 tons of crude oil for every 100 tons of plastics. When 100 tons of tires are processed, however, only 50 tons of oil are generated.
Council members were nonetheless extremely interested in the potential for tire processing at the Vadxx plant. Garrett and his company attorney were guarded in their responses when pressed by Pruitt and Jeff Johnson. Garrett said that annually, 10-12 million tires get scrapped in the region. The Vadxx plant could only process 2 million annually, so it wouldn't be a viable solution.
But the city needs a solution. Councilman Pruitt thinks it needs to come in the form of legislation.
WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
"The big problem right now is that there's a disconnect between what [repair shop operators] need to show to operate, and the number of tires they dispose of," said Pruitt. "It's obscene."
By city ordinance, auto repair businesses are required to show documentation for disposal of at least 5 tires a month.
Pruitt contends that the more unscrupulous among the operators report only the bare minimum and then dump the rest of their stock elsewhere. Pruitt took Scene on a private tour of some of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood's choicest dump sites. Behind a boarded-up home, someone had deposited nearly 50 tires in neat little pillars. A few blocks over, a run-down garage housed a dirty jumble of them interspersed among glass shards and used lumber.
Agglomerations of tires are community eyesores, but they also represent medical hazards, especially as warm weather arrives. When water gathers, so do mosquitoes. Tire dump sites are famous breeding grounds for West Nile Virus and other dangerous pathogens.
The city does what it can, but the handcuffs are many.
"Waste collection tries to round them up," said Pruitt. "But it's a pain when we get these tires in basements or garages. Our insurance -- our city insurance for seasonal workers -- doesn't allow them inside structures."
Pruitt described having to corral volunteers, many of them elderly folks who aren't suited for heavy lifting, to move the tires into locations where they could be picked up. According to the city's press office, 1,073 tons of tires were processed last year. That included tires out on residents' tree lawns, which law permits (for up to four tires). A worker at the Ridge Road Transfer station estimated that one ton equates to roughly 80-100 tires.
Pruitt speculated that it's not just Cleveland auto repair shops dropping off their refuse in his ward.
"Because we're on the border out here, I'm sure we have people driving in to dump."
WHY DUMP IN THE FIRST PLACE?
"No one wants to pay the tipping fees," Pruitt said.
Pam Cross, the Commissioner of the city's Environment Department, said that auto repair operators are supposed to contract haulers who take scrap tires out to the Liberty tire recycling facility in Minerva, Ohio, near Canton. Haulers charge a steep fare for the transport, and generally tack on the tipping fee in their cost.
"Or," said Pruitt, walking back to his car in Mt. Pleasant, "you could pay a guy with a truck $20 and have him go dump it somewhere."
An employee with Cleveland's Public Health department said that though ordinance requires operators to report their disposals monthly, it's left entirely up to them.
"Right now, it's the honor system to be honest," she said. "We're talking hundreds of locations and we have no way of policing them. The biggest problem for us is manpower."
Pam Cross said that's why city departments are now working together to revamp the current laws in place.
"It'll be a more stringent ordinance," Cross said. "We want to eliminate the minimum requirement so that if you've got any scrap tires, you've got to report it." She also referenced sharing resources across departments -- Parks and Recreation, Public Works, Mayor's Office, Licensing -- to increase evaluation and oversight, and changing the reporting process to ensure proper filing.
As to why there haven't been better, more localized, measures for recycling tires in the past, Cross admitted it has to do with money.
"We just don't have the budget," she said.
Other employees in the public health department said that they'd welcome a tire recycling plant within the city limits. They mentioned other plans that had surfaced in the past but were never executed because of feasibility and viability concerns: freezing tires, for instance, or developing an elaborate marking system.
Something like the Vadxx plant would be a perfect solution.
IS BURNING TIRES REALLY ECO-FRIENDLY?
Brian Cummins, city council's resident Green Party representative, said he thinks tires will have to be a pretty serious percentage of the Vadxx feed stock, if only because they're so plentiful.
"But I can understand that they'd want less tires from a business perspective," said Cummins.
He's nervous, foremost, about the environmental impact of the new plant.
"They're talking about going from two to three tons per day [during the trial phase] in Akron now up to 60 tons per day, and there just have to be some concerns. I mean, how good is the data we have?"
Cummins remained excited about the project and eager for city council's tour of the prototype facility on March 21, but he said industry experts would still probably consider the Vadxx project high-risk, from an emissions standpoint.
Neil Seldman, at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told the PD that the pyrolosis process is just as harmful as gasification, a combustion process that uses oxygen:
"It is the exact same bill of goods," Seldman said. "Burning tires emits toxic chemicals. Plastics are toxic, medical waste is toxic. They are trying to gasify toxic materials."
When asked whether or not burning tires was any more toxic than burning plastics, he said he wasn't sure.
Craig Volland, another industry expert and environmental consultant, said that if tires are the same as they were ten years ago, burning them is slightly less toxic than burning "some types of plastics typically found in the consumer waste stream," especially those which contain chlorine.
Jeff Johnson is more concerned about the environmental impact as well. He thinks that, in time, Vadxx will find ways to move to a more tire-focused feedstock.
"But the pollution is what I'm worried about. That's why I have some experts coming in and that's why we're holding a public hearing," Johnson said. "I don't want to call this 'trash-burning,' you can call it what you want, but this a poorer community, and they're coming in here. I support environmental ways to burn or recycle tires. I just don't know if I support it on 79th and St. Clair."
Whether or not Vadxx will put a dent in Cleveland's scrap tire surplus remains to be seen. But until the city finds a way to incentivize tire recycling, they'll continue to have more used rubbers than they can handle.