Jason Rathay is taking recycling to a new level.
“It’s not trash, that’s for sure,” the 38-year-old Bronson resident said of the sea of tires on his 13-acre farm outside the city on State Road 24.
“I’ve always seen tires stacked up,” he added, “and you wonder, ‘What are they ever going to do with them? What are they for? What could you build with them?'”
Poultry and emu farmers by trade, Rathay and his wife, Misty, are taking on a new venture — called “the Earthship Project” — to find a new purpose for hundreds of used tires.
Specifically, the plan is to use the tires as construction material by packing them with mud and stacking them to form walls, barriers and other structures.
The end products he’s aiming for: animal pens, a sound-barrier wall to block noise from State Road 24, an animal playground and maybe even a house. It’ll all serve a purpose on his farm, Bronson’s Hot Chicks, home to pigs, goats, rabbits, a peacock, quails, ducks, turkeys, 17 emus and other animals — some used for their eggs, some simply kept there.
“We want to build our own ship right here,” Rathay said, making a pun of the Earthship Project name. “Noah had his ark. It was a massive ship. Why not build our own right here?”
The idea of upcycling items for construction began in the ’70s. Earlier this month, Rathay decided to launch his own project by collecting tires from people around Levy County by posting on the county’s Word of Mouth Facebook page for donations.
He estimates he now has almost 1,500 tires on his property, and he plans to begin building with them on Nov. 5.
“Overnight, we had over a thousand brought in,” Rathay said.
Rathay’s efforts haven’t drawn any negative attention from officials.
Normally, 1,500 or more tires on a property would mean obtaining a permit because the site would be considered a “waste tire site,” state law says, with the owner charging a fee for disposal.
Or the used tires are handled by the county government also for a fee, said Travis Newsome of Levy County Solid Waste.
“We take the tires to the landfill,” he said, “and once we have enough, we fill up a semi-truck and take them down to Wildwood,” where Global Tire Recycling grinds them into mulch for use in playgrounds, equestrian areas and other landscaping projects.
But because Rathay’s operation is based on donations and he’s recycling them for his own purposes, not profit, there hasn’t been any action from officials.
For his plans, Rathay is getting instructions from Earthship Biotecture, a the New Mexico-based company that offers plans on structures from upcycled materials.
The biggest one-time donation of tires Rathay received was from Levy Boys Tire Recycling owner Dustin Seale, a permitted waste-tire collector with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
After checking with the Florida DEP to get the OK, Seale said he donated between 500 and 600 tires.
“We can collect about 1,200 tires in 10 days,” he said. “[We gave him] not even a quarter of what we normally collect.”
But problems with waste-tire sites persist.
Tim Townsend, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Florida, said tires can easily retain water and subsequently breed mosquitos, which leads to the spread of disease.
Rathay said he’s aware of that issue but noted the insect-eating animals on his property.
“We have over 200 ducks, [and] that naturally takes care of all bugs and pests,” he said, adding that he’s thankful there hasn’t been much rain lately. “The animals themselves are their own pest control.”
Another problem is that tires are extremely flammable and contain harmful pollutants if set aflame, Townsend said. If tire piles do catch on fire, they could quickly become out of control.
However, Townsend said he believes that if the proper precautions are taken to prevent such issues, Rathay’s newfound purpose for the tires isn’t of concern.
Over the weekend, Rathay invited volunteers to help organize the tires according to size.
Volunteer David Hyatt heard about Rathay’s project on Facebook and decided to bring along four teenagers to help.
“Doesn’t hurt for them to do a little physical labor and get away from the video games for a day,” he said.
Along with contributing to his farm, Rathay said he believes it also benefits the community.
“Everything we’re trying to do is non-profit,” he said. “Once we get the tires and start building, we also have 2 acres of the pasture land that we’re going to have the community have their own vegetable garden.”
Once they get the hang of tire construction, the Rathays said their next project will be even bigger.
“Our goal is to figure out how to build with the tires now [and then] to build our home in a few years,” said Misty Rathay, who’s working on getting Bronson’s Hot Chicks its nonprofit certification.
The Rathays said they hope their project will start the trend in the community of everyone being healthier and more environmentally conscious.
“It just takes the time and effort for someone to be able to do it,” Jason Rathay said.