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The Independent Culture
THIS YEAR has seen an important double anniversary that, given its significance, has gone curiously unnoticed. One hundred and fifty years ago, an invention was patented which has caused one of the most serious waste disposal problems of our time; 100 years ago that invention was first applied to its most typical modern use. Today, the world is still trying to work out what to do about it.

The item in question is the tyre. In 1845, Robert William Thomson, wanting to make carriage travel a less jarring experience, invented pneumatic tyres made of canvas with a leather tread, and inflated by a rubber inner tube. They were too expensive to be anything more than a passing novelty; then, in 1888, John Boyd Dunlop decided that he wanted to give his toddler son a more comfortable ride on his tricycle and resurrected the idea. Seven years later, rubber pneumatic tyres finally entered motoring history when Edouard Michelin fitted them to a Peugeot for the 1895 Paris to Bordeaux Motor Race.

Today, at least 710 million tyres are manufactured worldwide every year - and an estimated 790 million are scrapped. In the US alone, there are around 2 billion stockpiled tyres, and that figure is increasing by about 200-250 million per year. Altogether, there are billions of tyres, new and old, on the planet. Their virtual indestructibility - their great virtue when they are in use - has proved their great fault. Although they can be broken down into shreds, this requires both money and resources - and shredding tyres often wears out the shredding machinery.

Of the 20-30 million tyres discarded annually in Britain, more than 50 per cent are buried in landfill dumps, illegally tipped or stockpiled. The tyres you can see in these pictures have been accumulated about a mile from the village of Hampole, near Doncaster, over some 20 years, and there are thought to be as many as 2-5 million on the dump. They're an eyesore and, according to Qadeer Khan OBE, Head of Waste Regulation for South Yorkshire, "The site is not licensed and does not have planning permission."

Aesthetically, they're horrible, but the most worrying aspect of tyre dumps such as this one is the possibility of fire, and the resulting toxic smoke. In 1990, 15 million tyres stockpiled in Hagersville, Ontario, blazed for 17 days, sending up so much toxic smoke that 1,700 people had to be evacuated from their homes. When, last year, a big fire occurred at Deepcarr, north of Sheffield, says Qadeer Khan, "The tyres burned for several days and the smoke was visible for more than 10 to15 miles. It made us realise how serious a fire [at the Hampole tip] could be."

Even more worryingly, tyre dump fires can smoulder underground for months or even years. A stockpile of 8-10 million tyres in Knighton, Powys, caught fire in October 1989, and though the surface blaze was quickly extinguished, the underground fire was not smothered until October 1990; even then, 5,000 tonnes of pulverised clinker had to be poured down 18 specially sunk boreholes.

Tyres don't have to be dumped; there are much better ways of disposing of them. Elm Energy and Recycling of Wolverhampton burns them in special incinerators to produce electricity; many old tyres can be given a new lease of life by retreading; and, ground into crumbs, tyre rubber has many uses, from making carpet underlay to being mixed with asphalt to make road and playground surfaces. And then there are shoes; inventive craftsmen in the Third World have long been using bits of defunct tyres to make footwear; now Merrell Eco Tread Sandals, made from tyres with the tread pared away, are becoming fashionable in Europe. And the European Union itself has grandiose plans to eliminate the problem of tyre dumping, by a combination of prevention (ie, by making tyres more durable in the first place), retreading and recycling. Seeing will be believing; and in the meantime, tyre mountains will continue to grow - and smoulder. !