When you think about the big administrative problems facing Yellowstone, tires probably aren’t one of them. But actually, tires–what they do to the environment, and what to do with them–are a huge issue for America’s first national park. Now, Yellowstone is teaming up with Michelin to try something new to help preserve Old Faithful: pave their roads with ground-up old tires.
Every year, 3.5 million people drive to Yellowstone, over 90% of them with Old Faithful as their destination. That’s a lot of tires eating away at Yellowstone’s roads, even if you don’t take into account Yellowstone’s fleet of 452 vehicles that drive 3.7 million miles every year between them. But it’s not just about road upkeep. Yellowstone’s roughly 3,500 square miles in area, so the park’s well-worn vehicles need to have their tires replaced often. But disposing of those tires is a nightmare, not just logistically, but environmentally: It’s a 200-mile round-trip drive to the nearest landfill.
All of this stuff makes tires an expensive problem for Yellowstone, both fiscally and ecologically, says Steven F. Iobst, Yellowstone’s deputy superintendent. “From a fiscal standpoint, the National Parks budget has been essentially flat for several years,” Iobst says. “So we have to innovate to stretch those limited dollars to make sure Yellowstone’s resources are protected, and visitors have legendary experiences.”
When it comes to tires, Yellowstone’s innovation partner is Michelin, which has helped Yellowstone figure out all sorts of clever ways to refine their tire use over the last eight years: from developing new tread patterns to cut down on fuel use by up to 15% (not a bad savings against Yellowstone’s $2 million yearly gas budget) and donating many of the tires that Yellowstone’s vehicle fleet drives on every day.
The latest project between Yellowstone and Michelin, though, takes their partnership to a new level. Now, instead of just grinding away at Yellowstone’s roads, Michelin’s tires will be ground up to help pave them. Last month, a team of volunteers, including several Michelin employees, re-paved a particularly run-down stretch of path near Old Faithful with 900 shredded Michelin tires turned into a porous asphalt through an innovative new process, called Flexi-Pave. It’s just Phase 1 of a project that will eventually see a 6,400-foot road entirely paved in recycled tires.
Flexi-Pave has many perks over traditional asphalt for Yellowstone. First, it keeps tires out of the landfill, and it’s more heat-tolerant and durable than many traditional alternatives. Second, it’s porous, which allows rainwater to actually seep through the Flexi-Pave material and sink into the groundwater, where it can go right into replenishing Old Faithful. It even acts as a natural filter.
One drawback of Flexi-Pave is that it’s more expensive than traditional asphalt. “That’s a disadvantage when you consider how much we want to accomplish,” admits Iobst. But that’s a cost that Yellowstone expects will come down over time, and pay dividends in other ways, like reduced road maintenance costs. And it benefits Michelin too, allowing the tire-maker to treat Yellowstone almost as a test lab for innovative new ideas they hope to eventually bring to the consumer market.
Most of all, the project has a pleasing symmetry. “The tires used in Yellowstone can now be repurposed to help preserve it for future generations,” says Iobst. “The three hallmarks of conservation are to reduce, reuse, and recycle. This project does all of those at once.”