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Entrepreneur sees green in scrap-tire mountains

According to most estimates, Colorado has more scrap tires than any other state. Two massive monofills in Hudson and Midway (between Colorado Springs and Pueblo) account for more than 60 million tires between them alone. Then there are other dump sites—legal and illegal.

Roman Navarro, founder and CEO of Tires to Green Recycling in Hudson, saw an opportunity to recycle tires in Colorado after starting his career recycling electronics in Mexico. He planned to recycle tires south of the border first. “Surprisingly, there were no tires to recycle,” he says.

Colorado’s monofills, decades in the making, represented a big opportunity to Navarro. “A lot of other states produce more, but they recycle 80% of them,” he says. “Colorado has the biggest number for sure—by a lot.”

But there’s no clear way to monetize the byproducts of recycling tires in Colorado. “If there’s demand, there’s supply,” says Navarro, estimating that the equivalent of about 6.5 million standard tires are scrapped in Colorado annually. “The state and the cities are really trying to do something with this problem.”

Tires to Green Recycling has grown to 21 employees after investing “many million dollars” in its recycling facility in Hudson, 30 miles northeast of Denver on Interstate 76. The facility can process 36,000 tons of tires a year, but that is currently more than the market can handle. “We can do more than we can sell, and that’s a problem,” Navarro says.

California spurred its market in 2013 by mandating the use of rubber in asphalt, which typically requires 2,000 scrap tires to resurface a mile of lane. Other uses—tire-derived fuel (TDF), rubber mulch and carbon black — don’t make much of a dent, and shipping the byproducts across state lines is usually not economically viable.

“Legislation needs to be more amicable to the processors,” Navarro says. “It’s a lot of investment and there’s a lot of work to be done.”

David Snapp, environmental protection specialist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, says monofill enforcement has been prioritized since 2008. The Midway monofill has been shrinking, but the number of tires in Hudson has remained more or less static.

Funded by a $1.25 fee on new tires, an end-user rebate program has bolstered recycling in recent years. Recycling and salvaging hit 159% of discarded tires in 2016. In 2019, that number was 83%. “The majority of that is salvaged tires and tire-derived fuel,” Snapp notes.

He says the state’s tire recycling rate “hovered around 100%” with the program intact, but its funds were temporarily transferred to the general fund in 2020 to hedge against the pandemic.

As for the 60 million tires in the recycling queue, Snapp echoes Navarro: The demand for byproducts simply isn’t there. Snapp notes, “People speculatively accumulated those tires thinking they were a resource.” Using rubber in asphalt would help, he adds, but it “didn’t pass the test” when the Colorado Department of Transportation analyzed its utility in Colorado’s climate.

For that reason, Colorado needs to take an “all of the above” approach, Snapp argues. He’s also quick to note that the monofill numbers are notably large because scrap tires are banned from other landfills in Colorado. “They’ve got to go somewhere,” he says.