You may think it's odd to take several million tires and dump them in the ocean to try and help marine life, but it seemed like a bright idea for those in charge of these things in the 1970s.
In 1972, Broward Artificial Reef Inc. (BARINC) came up with a plan that would ultimately lead to disaster: combining the problem of disposing of vehicle tires with the desire to create new homes for fish. The plan was to take around 2 million old tires and let them sink to the ocean floor, where fish would surely flock to the "artificial reef."
The idea drew a surprising amount of enthusiasm. Over 100 privately owned boats voluntarily joined in the dumping, as well as the US Navy's ship the USS Thrush. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co decided that this was just the sort of project they should be involved in and donated tires and equipment to bind the tires together, while other tires came from dumps.
Goodyear liked the idea so much that they even got a Goodyear blimp to drop a gold-painted tire into the ocean as a ceremonial opening to the project. A press release from the company stated that the tires would "provide a haven for fish and other aquatic species," and talked up the "excellent properties of scrap tires as reef material."
The idea, though well-intentioned, transpired to be a disaster, a complete underwater car crash.
"The really good idea was to provide habitat for marine critters so we could double or triple marine life in the area," Ray McAllister, a professor of ocean engineering at Florida Atlantic University who helped organize the project said some years later, in 2007. "It just didn't work that way. I look back now and see it was a bad idea."
Now, sinking man-made materials to make reefs isn't as out of the blue as it sounds. Shipwrecks are the most common form of artificial reefs, and vessels have been sunk intentionally to provide a habitat for sea critters. What was wrong with dumping rubber into the ocean was just how light it was, and how much tires can drift and break apart.
Only a few species of sponges grew on the tires, sparsely at that. Worse, currents ripped many of the tires loose. The loose tires proceeded to crush other natural nearby corals as they slid across the ocean floor, and blocked coral reefs from growing. In short, "they're a constantly killing coral-destruction machine," as William Nuckols, coordinator of a cleanup effort put it in 2007.
Volunteers and various groups have attempted to retrieve the tires since it became clear the project had failed, but the sheer scale of the task is daunting. The US military became involved in the cleanup, and managed to remove 72,000 of the tires before the Industrial Divers Corporation was contracted to raise more. Hundreds of thousands have been removed, but many hundreds of thousands remain.