EU seeks ‘reliable’ method to measure microplastic pollution from tyres

"The revision of the tyre labelling regulation was a great opportunity to guide consumers towards tyres that release less microplastics and European decision makers decided not to seize it," said Valeria Botta, programme manager at ECOS. [E Bouman / Pixabay]

An EU regulation on tyre labelling due to come into force on 1 May will not cover the rate at which tyres shed particles – a major contributor to microplastics in Europe – as an agreed method for the calculation of abrasion is still not in place.

The requirement to list abrasion was included in the tyre labelling regulation, adopted in February 2020, but pushed back due to technical questions over how to measure the rate at which particles are jettisoned from tyres. It is estimated that a test method will be established by 2023.

The European Commission’s updated circular economy action plan, released in March 2020, sets a goal of “measuring unintentionally released microplastics, especially from tyres and textiles”.

As a first step, the plan highlights “harmonising methods” at European level in order to measure the release of microplastics in the environment.

The European Tyre & Rubber Manufacturers Association (ETRMA), a lobby group representing companies including Bridgestone, Goodyear, and Pirelli, told EURACTIV that it is working with the Commission to develop a “reliable and reproducible method” to measure car tyre abrasion that is “reflective of European usage”.

ECOS, an NGO advocating for green environmental standards, criticised the decision to defer abrasion labelling, arguing there is “no time to waste” to address microplastics from tyre wear.

“The revision of the tyre labelling regulation was a great opportunity to guide consumers towards tyres that release less microplastics and European decision makers decided not to seize it,” Valeria Botta, programme manager at ECOS, told EURACTIV.

“The absence of a test method is going to be repeatedly used as an excuse not to make any decisions despite the evident health and environmental impact of microplastics from tyre wear,” she added.

The new labelling regulation requires all tyres produced after 1 May to display information on performance in treacherous conditions, such as snow and ice, as well as noise levels and fuel efficiency.

To make the data easily understandable for consumers, each tyre is assigned a letter based on performance, similar to electronic items.

But Green MEP Jutta Paulus says that some noise classes don’t have any products in them, making them “counterproductive”.

“The consumer thinks ‘okay, I have a B tyre and that’s great, because there’s also C and D.’ But the consumer doesn’t know that every product is B or better,” she said.

“The tyre industry has proven to be very, very good at lobbying,” she added.

On the issue of microplastics from tyre abrasion, Paulus says steps should be taken beyond labelling, such as setting minimum standards for abrasion.

“What we really would have liked to see is at least a commitment to restriction, where [the European Commission] says ‘we will label tyres, but as soon as we have a reliable method to measure lifetime abrasion, we will actually ban the worst product from our markets’”, the Greens MEP said.

“That would have been a real change. But, of course, industry is very strong there.”

Tyre industry pushes back against evidence of plastic pollution

A growing body of scientific research linking tyre wear to microplastic pollution, as well as increasing scrutiny from lawmakers in the European Union, has led the €150 billion-a-year tyre industry to fight back.

MEP Henna Virkkunen of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) believes that tyres labelling should be part of a larger policy response.

“Directly addressing the tyre design or setting minimum requirements for abrasion are examples of other potential measures to consider,” she told EURACTIV.

Virkkunen praised the European Commission’s investment in research and development to stop the spread of microplastics and its engagement with the tyre industry.

“Both of these are crucial so that the tyre industry can adapt to the changing policy requirements as well as to contribute to solving the issue,” she said.

Design regulations

Environmental campaigners have called on the European Commission to more strictly regulate tyre design to prevent the release of microplastics – changes that would likely cost the industry billions.

“A mandatory legal threshold for tyre wear should be defined to exclude the worst performers from the EU market,” states a December 2020 report by ECOS.

Doing so would bring benefits “to human health and the environment” the report said.

While environmentalists highlight tyre design as the main area to tackle, industry tends to focus on other factors.

“Driving behaviour, road and vehicle characteristics can together have a much bigger influence on the rate at which tyre and road wear particles are formed than tyre design alone,” states an ETRMA-backed website advocating a “holistic approach” to address the challenge.

A major source of microplastics

As tyres move along the road, friction causes small pieces to break off. These tyre particles degrade into microplastics – generally defined as particles with a diameter of less than 5 mm – over time. But industry warns that any moves to reduce tyre friction could make cars less secure.

“When a car, truck or bus travels on a road, the friction between the tyres and road surfaces ensures grip, essential for keeping vehicles on the road. Without this friction vehicles would slide over roads and compromise safety,” states tyreandroadwear.com, an ETRMA-run website.

Jutta Paulus argues that framing the issue as a question of safety is a fig leaf for industry to hide behind.

“As soon as you mention ‘safety’, everyone’s alarm bells go off. They say ‘we must not compromise safety on our roads!’ But the truth is it still has to be proven that safety is hampered when you make tyres more durable,” she said.

A 2018 report approved by the European Chemicals Agency placed road tyres as the largest contributor to microplastics in EU surface waters, responsible for 94,000 tonnes per year.

This contrasts with studies commissioned by the tyre industry, which found less drastic results.

“The ETRMA-commissioned Cardno ChemRisk and Deltares study looking at whether [tyre particles] reach the marine environment found that only 2% to 5% of [particles] may reach the estuary,” Fazilet Cinaralp, secretary general of ETRMA, told EURACTIV.

The tyre industry asserts that further research is required to determine the extent to which tyre particles are impacting the environment.

“We need clarity on the current unknowns, to ensure measures to reduce the levels of [particles from tyre wear] found in the environment are as evidence-based and efficient as possible,” said Cinaralp.

“We strongly believe that an evidence and science-based approach should guide the response to the [tyre particles] challenge,” she added.

Microplastics also travel through the air, says new study

Microplatics are not only found in the world’s oceans but can also reach isolated areas by air, according to a study published in Nature Geoscience on 15 April. EURACTIV’s partner le Journal de l’environnement reports.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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