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Kuwaiti citizens deal with effects of fires in world’s largest tyre graveyard

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Shocking images of a fire burning across a landfill filled with old tyres circulated widely on social media in late July. The tyre-dumping site, located about a dozen kilometres from the capital of Kuwait, is the largest in the world, with more than 50 million tyres buried in the desert area. While this viral video was actually filmed in April, it does show a serious environmental problem that has been impacting the small Gulf country. 

Satellites images captured a huge cloud of black smoke coming from a massive fire in the Salmi landfill, known as the “tyre graveyard”, located in Kuwait’s Jahra district. This video, which is just over a minute long, garnered more than three million views on Twitter after it was posted without any context on July 29. It shows discarded tyres as far as the eye can see. 

When and where was this video filmed?

Our team used the Invid WeVerify tool to look into the video (click here to find out how). We found a few older posts of the same event on Twitter, posted on April 29 and 30, 2021, as well as a Tweet with screengrabs of the viral video posted by a member of Kuwait’s Municipal Council, Ahmad Al Hadian.

In this tweet from April 30, 2021, Ahmad Al Hadian denounces what he calls negligence by Jahra city officials, who are supposed to oversee the Salmi landfill.

According to Kuwaiti media, a fire broke out on April 29 in the tyre graveyard. Firefighters, who managed to put out the flames after seven hours, said that there were no victims but that the fire was a case of arson. They provided no information about the investigation into the possible perpetrator. 

This video, which was posted by Kuwaiti firefighters on April 30, 2021, shows the extent of the fire that ravaged the Salmi landfill on April 29.

Why does this little country have so many used tyres?

It turns out the viral video is from a few months back. But fires often break out in this landfill, which extends over 3 km² and is considered the world’s largest tyre graveyard. There are around 60 million used tyres in the landfill alone, according to environmental officials – tyres that will eventually be buried in the large pits you can see in these satellite images.

Screenshot from Google Earth showing the smoke from the fire at the Salmi waste disposal site. You can also see the pits used to hold the tyres. Fires are common on the site.
Screenshot from Google Earth showing the smoke from the fire at the Salmi waste disposal site. You can also see the pits used to hold the tyres. Fires are common on the site. © Google Earth

In the 1980s and 1990s, Kuwait made a business importing used tyres from other countries, importing 259 million used tyres per year from the United States and Europe, until the practice was banned in 2001.

This aerial image shows the pits where used tires are buried once they are brought to the landfill.

The fire on April 29 isn’t the first that’s taken place at the Salmi landfill. In 2021 alone, authorities reported three different fires in Salmi: one on February 13, a second on March 30 and the third on April 29. Preliminary investigations concluded that all three fires were criminal in nature after finding traces of combustible liquids at the site. In 2012, a fire burned for three days in a tyre dump site in neighbouring Arhayyah, located 8 km from Jahra. After the incident, the contents of the dumping grounds were moved to Salmi, and the site closed definitively in 2016.

These tyre graveyards contain thousands of tonnes of rubber, which sits exposed to the burning sun, thus releasing carcinogenic gas harmful for humans and the environment. Dioxins are released into the atmosphere when synthetic rubber combusts, even at low temperatures.

Fatma Al Zalzalah is a 24-year-old engineer from Kuwait, who launched an environmental initiative called “Eco star” in 2019, to help promote better recycling of waste.

‘This fire releases carbon black, which is an invisible killer’

Burning tyres let off carbon black [Editor’s note: a type of carbon essentially produced by the petrochemicals industry, which is a serious pollutant]. It’s difficult to get that out of the atmosphere. All of the fires that took place in the Salmi landfill were set intentionally. The investigations haven’t turned up leads, but, for me, that shows the negligence of people running these landfills. The entire region is suffering the effects of this gas. It’s an invisible killer. 

Kuwait only recycles a small amount of its used tyres [Editor’s note: 35% of the graveyard is made up of material that can’t be recycled, according to authorities]. So the national policy is geared more towards exporting these tyres. 

Recycling in Kuwait isn’t done properly, according to international standards. There are systems for recycling some goods, like paper and plastic, and companies that pick up rubbish but they don’t recycle any of it. An estimated 90% of the country’s waste is buried in relatively isolated zones. However, videos and photos taken at these sites – in secret, because filming is prohibited – show that the handling of waste violates industry standards.

But despite these procedures, there are landfill sites located in residential areas, including in the neighbouring districts of Al Quarin, Al Addan and Al Qosour [located 27 km south of Kuwait City], which are home to many people. These zones spent years repairing landfill sites because of damages caused by the gas used to incinerate waste. 

For example, the district of Ali Sabah Salem [located 56 km south of Kuwait City] is right next to both factories and tyre graveyards [Editor’s note: this residential area is located just 2 km from the landfill site in Abdallah port] and the community suffers all of the environmental damage caused by pollution. Residents complained about this pollution, but there has been no changes on this front.  

That’s why there are a large number of landfill sites in Kuwait. We have 18 landfills, which is high considering the size of the country [Editor’s note: 17, 818 km², or just 2.7% the size of France]. And yet, officials are planning on opening even more sites – not a very environmentally responsible decision.  

In January 2021, a concerned citizen reached out to environmental authorities in Kuwait about the rundown state of the Salmi waste management site and issues with the way tyres were being handled there.

We need a long term strategy, we can’t just rely on landfills as a rapid solution

When I started this recycling initiative two years ago, I had noticed that the Kuwaiti population seemed ready to change their habits and to start acting in a more environmentally friendly way. But there are very few government projects aimed at protecting the environment. The government really needs to revisit its priorities. 

They could, for example, build a centre that would sort and treat waste according to international standards before recycling parts of it. 

We need a long-term strategy, we can’t just rely on landfills as a rapid solution. Some government projects are created in line with this philosophy but they never materialise. We need to apply these strategies – and quickly. 

In March, Kuwait City officials revealed that the capital’s landfill sites receive 7,000 tons of waste daily. The city has plans to export 5 million tyres before the end of the year, but says that “efforts have been made to transport the tyres, but the city has limited resources faced with the large number of tyres and waste”.

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The Groucho

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