Osborne Reef: A man-made oceanic environmental disaster gives knowledge and understanding throughout cleanup efforts

In 1972, an ambitious project was proposed in South Florida to create an artificial reef just offshore of the Florida coast that would make use of an onshore nuisance: used tires. The project, called the Osborne Reef, was highly publicized and widely endorsed by environmental groups as being opportunistic for the development of artificial habitation for marine life. The project would also be endorsed by the Army Corps of Engineers, who identified the importance of taking an onshore esthetic pollutant and transforming it into something of value.

In 1974, nearly 2 million tires were deposited over an ocean area of more than 35 acres. Once complete, the tires would make up the world’s longest artificial reef.

By the mid-1990s, however, the project was considered a complete failure and declared an environmental disaster. Over the previous 20 years, only 10 percent of the tire structures had become inhabited by marine life. The remainder was blamed for destroying inhabitable areas, including affecting a nearby natural reef. The tires prevented the growth of organisms and impacted multiple marine environments as currents, tides, and the weather broke apart the artificial reef, spreading the tire pollutants across the ocean floor.

Changing Tides

By the early 2000s, small projects funded by grants and private donations slowly began tire cleanup across the Osborne Reef. Early efforts would see the removal of several thousand tires, but not nearly the amount needed for a noticeable impact. Additional projects, while effective, were identified as being too expensive and too time-consuming.

The Florida Legislature awarded funding to the Industrial Divers Corporation in 2015, which would allow for the removal of up to 5000 tires per week between 2016 and 2019. Still, these efforts were less effective than anticipated.

In 2021, the oceanic conservation group 4Ocean was awarded rights to the cleanup, which would be privately subsidized through fundraising and donations. This group maintains that they will work to clean up the reef disaster until the project is completed.

Life Lessons

What can be credited to the Osborne Reef project is the knowledge that comes from the lack of knowledge. While artificial reef creation in our oceans has increased since this project’s inception, it is now done with a greater understanding of environmental impact. The Osborne Reef was a failure, but in that failure was a lesson of life, tenacity, and the ability of humans to admit failure and find resolve.

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Seth Barnett

Seth is a professional writer and researcher having worked for start-ups and Fortune 10 companies. Learn more at www.sethbarnett.com