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At Earth Day tire roundup, rubber hits the road to recycling

By Michelle Rice, CNN
A truck loaded with tires found behind a vacant house is ready to head to the tire collection point in Atlanta.
A truck loaded with tires found behind a vacant house is ready to head to the tire collection point in Atlanta.
  • Southeast Atlanta neighborhoods mark Earth Day with a race to collect tires
  • Roundup gathers dumped tires from ditches, vacant houses, dead-end streets
  • Volunteers say roundup is a fun way to get rid of mosquito-breeding tires

Atlanta (CNN) -- It's like an Easter egg hunt for grownups.

Volunteers race the clock, scouring their neighborhood for junked used tires to be recycled for free. It's an Earth Day tradition in the Atlanta district of Council Member Natalyn Archibong. This year on April 16, more than 1,500 tires were collected. About 1,100 of those came from her East Atlanta neighborhood.

It's an in-town neighborhood that has more than its share of crime, graffiti and illegal dumping. It also has more than its share of dedicated residents -- this year about 20 -- willing to give up a Saturday to get wet and dirty tramping through poison ivy to pull tires out of ditches, from behind vacant homes and off the curbs of neighbors unable to dispose of them.

One hazard is "tire juice," the rainwater that collects in dumped tires and makes them mosquito-breeding menaces. Volunteers quickly learn to keep their mouths shut as they shake and twirl the tires to get the water out and make them easier to heave into a truck.

Volunteers have just four hours to drop the tires at Archibong's collection site. The rest of the year, it costs $1.25 to drop off a passenger tire at an Atlanta recycling facility. Archibong, who has been doing the roundup for 10 years on a Saturday close to Earth Day, usually pays for the event through her council office's expense budget. This year, she said, the recycling firm Liberty Tire became her "tire fairy" and picked up the tab.

Archibong started the roundup when the city stopped tire collection. She was concerned about the spread of mosquito-borne West Nile virus. The number of tires collected has gone down over the years, she said, from a high of more than 3,000. She said she thinks the roundup puts a public spotlight on tire dumping that helps prevent it.

Her assistant keeps count of the number of tires dropped off by each neighborhood in the council district. East Atlanta has won the past four years.

It's a dubious honor, one that volunteers like to think reflects their skill and organization at finding tires rather than a neighborhood that has more dumping than others. Tire recon starts weeks before Earth Day. Dead-end streets, ditches, vacant lots and foreclosed houses are all checked for tires. Piles of 50 or more tires are not uncommon. This year, one spot held about 400.

Perhaps amazingly, volunteers find this fun and rewarding. John Venneman, who collects tires in his Reynoldstown neighborhood and then helps friends in East Atlanta, said, "I pick up tires because I like living in the city, but only certain parts of it. The other parts will not change unless I change them."

Sheila Burau brought along a teenage neighbor. Burau said the roundup is a "positive way to build a sense of community spirit."

"The 15-year-old I was teamed up with had a blast and can't wait until we do it again next year," she said.

Kevin Spigener, who leads cleanup efforts for the neighborhood association, said he feels it's his civic duty to help "tackle a very serious and troubling issue."

The annual tire collection is hard to comprehend for friends and family who live in downtown condo districts or suburban subdivisions. "I am so confused as to where and why these tires show up. How does this happen?" asked one volunteer's brother.

Southeast Atlanta has many low-income residents, and the disposal fee paid to a tire store for a set of tires is generally $12. Some people choose to keep their old tires rather than paying the fee. Some are dumped. Others are stashed behind the house.

There also are many stores that sell used tires in Archibong's district. Volunteers suspect some of those shops collect the tire disposal fee but dump the tires. Volunteers pass the addresses of large piles on to Archibong for investigation, but law enforcement officials have said it is difficult to find the culprits. Resources aren't available to stake out multiple sites 24/7 to watch for tire dumpers. Other crimes take priority.

In the meantime, the volunteers will save their old clothes and work gloves for Earth Day 2012 and hope there won't be as many tires to round up then.