Is this the biggest environmental own goal ever?

Blog Post by Luc Sidebotham 30 March 2015

Sometimes, even with the best intentions, our efforts to help the environment can backfire. Small miscalculations can lead to unexpected consequences and unintended outcomes. Still, not many environmental projects can claim to have backfired as spectacularly as the Osborne Tyre Reef in Florida.  

As its name suggests, the Osborne Tyre Reef is an artificial reef made of used car tyres. The plan came about in the early 1970’s as a solution to two issues - the proliferation of illegal tyre dumps which were a fire hazard and became spawning grounds for mosquitoes; and the relatively poor fishing grounds off the Fort Lauderdale coast.

Artificial reefs had long been used to promote marine life on featureless sea beds and the growth of algae and other invertebrates can lead to the creation of habitats that can support fish and larger marine wildlife. Tyre reefs had already been created elsewhere in America, Asia, Africa and Australia, but the concept of using tyres in this way was still quite new. When a group of Florida fishermen, under the name Broward Artificial Reef Inc (BARINC), floated the idea it seemed like the perfect solution.

In hindsight very few of these tyre reef projects were successful, but it’s the scale of the Osborne Reef that sets it apart as an environmental disaster in a league of its own.

With the backing of the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company (who christened the site with a golden tyre dropped from the Goodyear blimp!) BARINC and a flotilla of around 100 private boats sunk around 2 million tyres over around 36 acres, 7,000ft offshore to about a depth of 65ft.

The reef was an unmitigated failure. Most of the tyres were tethered to concrete blocks and the tethers quickly disintegrated leaving a mass of mostly loose tyres free to move around in the ocean currents. Because they were so mobile, very little algae and invertebrate life could attach and live on the tyres and thousands washed up on beaches, even as far away as North Carolina. Worse than this, the annual hurricanes and tropical storms still pick up tyres and spread them across the ocean floor, killing coral and causing significant damage to the two nearby natural reefs.

Over the last ten years a number of projects have been set up to remove tyres from the area and protect the natural reefs, but the cleanup has proven difficult and expensive. The US Navy, Army and Coast Guard have all used the cleanup process for diving and rescue training purposes, but the amount of tyres removed remains negligible, estimated at below 80,000. Even if the 700,000 tyres still in place at the main Fort Lauderdale site were removed overnight, it could take decades to repair the damage caused by this well-intentioned but critically ill-fated environmental project.

We’ve come a long way in the last 30 years and it’s very unlikely that mistakes of this magnitude would be allowed to happen again, especially not in the UK. But next time you’re putting together an environmental project for your business, remember the Osborne Reef and get someone to give the plan a sanity-check!

Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tires540.jpg

 



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