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Are Tire Gardens Toxic? The Case For And Against

Are tire gardens toxic?

In a newsletter last year, I shared some thoughts on tire gardens, along with this video:

In response, one of my readers wrote:

“Hello David,
Tires do leach toxic, carcinogenic chemicals into the soil and plants grown in them. No time to research this? Then do not show pictures of plants grown in tires. That is irresponsible and bad karma as you pass on injury to others. Look into it. Fact: tire gardening and straw bale gardening are bad if you do not want toxin-suffused vegetables.”

And Sheila writes:

“One year, my father and I planted potatoes in tires. Just put on another tire and add dirt. We had lots of potatoes with seven high. PVC pipe with holes in it to water the plants. Problem was that they tasted like tires. Since then, I am not a fan of tires for living or gardening.”

Vegetables tasting like tires? And bad karma! Oh me oh my, I just want to give up.

Actually, I don’t care about tire gardens, though I do like the idea of recycling a waste product into a gardening bed.

But growing vegetables in tires isn’t a method I have any personal stake in. I’m happy to drop the method if it’s got its downsides, like straw bale gardening seems to have.

So—are tire gardens toxic? Let’s do a little digging.

Are Tire Gardens Toxic? The Case For Tires

Tires are, of course, cheap and widely available even in the third world. ECHO uses them in their urban garden demonstration area. You can set up tire gardens on driveways, on roof tops, in rocky lots, and in tight spaces.

They’re convenient, too. But are they toxic?

When Patrice at Rural Revolution blogged about their tractor tire gardens, she got a similar response to that which I got … but even harsher.

Someone wrote:

You could have created a floral landscape, a Dutch Masterpiece, an English Rose Garden, a French Formal Garden, and you chose Fords-Ville, Michelin Man, and polluted Mother Earth. Scrap timber is everywhere, so are bricks, tiles, even rockery stones, but tires no. Are you sure the food grown will be free of carbon rubber tire oil moisture? A carcinogen?

You can read Patrice’s response and entire defense of tire gardening here, but most of it boils down to what she wrote here:

“Tires have a lot of nasty things bonded into them, things that arguably ARE carcinogenic. But it’s the term BONDED that must be considered. Intact tires are distressingly inert (that’s why they’re everywhere rather than quietly decomposing into Mother Earth).”

She then quotes extensively from research done by Mr. Farber of www.tirecrafting.com (which now redirects to an Etsy site so the original essay appears to be missing):

Used tires already exist, and in their solid state, they are as safe or safer than any other construction material. The process and the result of this global discard nightmare being recycled by industry, whether grinding them up for road base, burning them as fuel, or recouping the oil, releases more hydrocarbons while costing the global economy billions of dollars for tire cleanup and commercial recycling. Modifying tires to create green space and home gardening available to everyone would not only absorb hydrocarbons, it could well be the key to salvation for practically every family on the planet that is otherwise excluded from adequate sustenance. Personal tire recycling potential benefits far outweigh all perceived hazards.

Still, I am not convinced. After all, if vegetables are tasting like tires, well, that doesn’t inspire confidence. Yet I do love what Patrice has done at Rural Revolution. In her case, it made sense.

Are Tire Gardens Toxic? The Case Against Tires

According to Brighton Permaculture Trust:

“Due to commercial secrecy, it’s difficult to find out the exact ingredients of a tire, and there are lots of different types. The list below is from a ‘typical tire’:

  • Natural rubber
  • Synthetic rubber compounds, including Butadiene—known carcinogen
  • Solvents: Benzene—known carcinogen, Styrene—anticipated to be carcinogenic, Toluene—has negative health effects, Xylene—irritant, & Petroleum naphtha
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: Phenols—some are endocrine-disruptive, Benzo(a)pyrene—linked to cancer
  • Heavy metals: Zinc, chromium, nickel, lead, copper & cadmium
  • Carbon black—possibly carcinogenic
  • Vulcanising agents: Sulphur & zinc oxide
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls—known carcinogen
  • Other synthetic chemicals”

Again, though, these terrible things might have off-gassed during the tire’s usable life or been stabilized and made inert during manufacturing.

Yet as Mischa argues in that article:

“When it comes to growing food in tires, why take the risk?

Whilst the quantity of toxic chemicals may be small, we don’t know the exact amount used in tyres because of commercial secrecy.

People generally grow food organically for themselves to avoid exposure to synthetic chemicals. It seems ironic that a ‘Permaculture way’ of reusing tires could be unintentionally reintroducing potentially harmful chemicals back into the equation.”

And over at Science Daily, it gets scarier:

“Draper’s method has been to make up clean samples of water like those inhabited by several kinds of aquatic organisms—algae, duckweed, daphnia (water fleas), fathead minnows, and snails—and under controlled laboratory conditions, put finely ground tire particles into the samples. By letting the particles remain in the water for 10 days and then filtering them out, she created a “leachate” that included substances in the tire rubber. All the organisms exposed to the leachate died, and the algae died fairly quickly.”

This is not complete tires, of course, but tires will break down slowly over time in the garden—and if it kills ground life, well, that’s obviously a bad thing.

The science isn’t settled, but it is unsettling.

Conclusion

After multiple hours of research, I am now leaning against tire gardening. On my new property, I have not built any tire gardens and I don’t plan to add any.

If you’re in an urban setting, have terrible soil or no soil, and no options, etc., there might be a place for tire gardens. I built mine for fun in a few minutes and have enjoyed them, but I now have no desire to expand and add more. Yet digging beds is free—so why use tires at all?

Especially if it’s going to ruin the karma I don’t even believe in.

If you want simple, tried-and-true and even off-grid methods for growing lots of food without much money in tough times, stick around The Grow Network and keep learning!

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Featured Photo Credit: Mark Buckawicki / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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This post was written by David The Good

COMMENTS(19)

  • Scott Sexton says:

    Thanks for presenting both sides of the argument. All that info makes me question the kids’ tire swing out back. And I used to have a pair of homemade sandals with repurposed tire material as the soles. But those are long gone. Not comfortable and kept staining my feet.

    1. I wouldn’t worry much about the tire swing. It’s too much fun.

  • Peggy Brewster says:

    Yes, thanks for the even handed article. I have never understood why people who are growing organic food would risk Any amount of outgassing or leaching from known toxic tires. Maybe if the soil and plants had a protective lining inside the tires? I still would still not do it as if there’s leaching of any sort it goes into your land – and everything that inhabits it. So, not even unedible flowers is ok in my mind – and growing practices. Probably the same mindset that thinks putting toxic blue dish soap in a ‘natural’ weed killer is ok also.

  • Debbie Brown says:

    If old tires are so toxic, why are mosquitoes able to breed from the water in the tires? Doesn’t seem to be affecting mosquitoes genetically. Then would also like to know how the health of people who built Earth Houses with tires as part of the construction, fared(same with the Straw Bale Homes).

    1. Julie Figueroa says:

      The tires used to build Earthships are encapsulated with spraycrete or a similar material after the structure’s assembled, so there’s no offgassing.

  • Mark Baker says:

    I never gardened in tires, so I figured I was playing it safe. While reading this article, I thought about how they grind up tires and recycle them into … SOAKER HOSES!!! That’s probably releasing lots of toxins in my garden. Out they go!

    1. Julie Figueroa says:

      I think you’re overreacting. First of all, the water isn’t sitting IN the hoses. What material is used in conducting water into your house? Very little of anything ISN’T toxic these days. It might be smarter to have your heavy metal levels checked and start detoxing regularly.

    2. I don’t like soaker hoses just because I find them to be a pain. I prefer stand pipes with overhead irrigation, though I used PVC pipes when I set mine up… they’re probably even more toxic. No good options anymore.

  • JakeMartin says:

    Hysteria is rampant and so is ignorance. Mark Baker shows just how flippant people can be with his soaker hoses have to go statement. First of all, there are toxins everywhere, you cannot avoid them all – even natural toxins/carcinogens in all of nature delivered there by air, precipitation, and decaying vegetation that absorbed them. Using tires or even RR ties in the garden do NOT create a measurably toxic environment. The example experiment used where the fish and water plants died from ground tire particles is not a conclusive experiment as there were too many variables – amount of tire particles, freshness of material, size of the container and filtering, etc. What about all of the plastics, paper and cardboard with inks and glues, garden hoses of plastic and rubber and their chemicals, PVC and metal plumbing. For those of you who get woodchips, compost, and/or topsoil from garden centers or other sources, how do you KNOW that those items contain no toxins? YOU DON’T! They could come from properties where there is heavy pesticide, herbicide, or other chemical use, or from a municipal dump where other “toxic” could cross-contaminate them.
    Secondly, There are many foods/vitamins/minerals that can be ingested (like bentonite clay) that detox the body so the limited toxins you would get from gardening with tires would be easily flushed from the body.
    And third – There are certain foods and herbs that are proven anti-cancer. For example, ingesting cannabis oil or juicing cannabis into a smoothie regularly and adding other herbs like turmeric, ginger, etc. will prevent cancers. Add to that eating fermented foods/drinks like kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, apple cider vinegar, etc. maintains proper bacteria in the gut keeps the proper body pH which is unacceptable for cancers and other diseases.

    Stop with the creation of dangers that DON’T EXIST! The minimal amount of toxins that may leech into the soil from tires, RR ties, plastic buckets, soaker/garden hoses, etc. is NOT what causes the devastating illnesses society is plagued with today. It is caused by the processed foods, the municipal water supplies (chlorine, flouride, and many others), use of chemical cleaners used in the home, and even absorption from clothing/bedding/furniture in you home. Unless you are eating 100% from your own production, your water is from a natural source and verified pure through testing, and you only use 100% natural cleaning products, then you are ingesting/absorbing toxins daily in far greater quantity than a few tires will give you!

    And as a last note, I haven’t even gotten into the electrical/microwave bombardment that you are getting from all of the “appliances” and smart meter in your life!

    1. JakeMartin says:

      Out of curiosity, how many of you have a swimming pool or hot tub? Ever thought of how many chemical toxins you are absorbing each time you take that dip? How many have greenhouses, covered in plastic, with plastic barrels for water collection, plastic hydroponic/aquaponic containers, PVC piping, etc.? How many use tarps to cover things in your yard and those tarps deteriorate and fall apart, leaving small pieces in the soil? Do you use a tractor, power lawn equipment, tillers, etc. that use petroleum products for fuel or lubrication? Get the point?

    2. Julie Figueroa says:

      You left out sugar — that includes the HFCS rampant in our food supply these days.

    3. Mark Baker says:

      Each of us has to decide for ourselves what is acceptable and what is not. If you have no problem with using Round-Up or chemical fertilizers, that’s your choice. Maybe you don’t mind a little asbestos or lead either? OK. I prefer to limit my exposure to toxins. I grow organically. I use non-toxic cleaners. I buy organic products. I distill all water used for drinking or cooking. Extreme? Maybe so, but that’s my choice. The article says “…Intact tires are distressingly inert…”, but when you grind them up and make them into soaker hoses, they are no longer intact. I don’t want their toxins in my garden, so: “Out they go!”

      1. Yeah, it’s all risk management. For example, you could probably make a case that smoking cigarettes is better for you than eating KFC… but I don’t mind skipping both.

        1. Unless it’s really good quality tobacco. That’s much more tempting to me than nasty fried chicken.

  • Cherlynn says:

    Many years ago my sister and I took tires and zig saw them and turned them inside out to plant flowers in them. They were really pretty and no where near my garden. Been thinking of doing some more. If I do I will post a picture.

  • Cherlynn says:

    I just saw that my zig zag turned into zig sawed. When you flip the tire inside out it puts a real pretty edge on it.

    1. They are beautiful. I like the idea of reusing materials.

    2. kehanson says:

      How do you zig zag a tire? How do you flip the tire inside out? That must take a lot of muscle power.

  • bmaverick says:

    David, I would not ever think of growing food in tires. Tires for Ag, semi’s, and vehicles have all kinds of weird things bonded to them, yet these un-bond due to heat and UV rays. Tires crack with aging. Tires also get plugged holes or worse yet, green slimmed to fill them. Ever look up the MSDS sheet on that green slim tire filler??? Ag tires, like the rear tractor ones get chemicals added to keep a ballast of weight. Most times it’s again chemicals in a water solution. Some farmers use antifreeze for northern use in the tires too. I’m all for re-use, but there are certain limits.

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