If you were to string together the more than 300,000,000 waste tyres accumulated annually in Europe, you would travel around the entire world. Tyre recyclers take a major waste challenge and turn it into sustainable valuable resources, paving the way to a fully circular economy. Preventing microplastic releases while preserving a well-functioning circular value chain should be the goal.
Alejandro Navazas is a Scientific Officer at EuRIC.
Going the extra-mile on the road of climate neutral and circular economy is a must to achieve the targets set by the European Green Deal and tyre recycling plays a key role in that respect. Over the years, hundreds of small, medium and large tyre recycling companies have invested heavily to recover more materials from end-of-life tyres (ELT) while creating non-outsourceable jobs and contributing to a more sustainable environment. Yet, in the European Union (EU), the margin for improvement remains significant to boost tyre recycling.
Tyres are mostly recycled into high value end-applications but those remain limited by regulatory, technological or end-market bottlenecks. Efforts alongside the value chain are thus essential to broaden circular end-markets for ELT. This involves addressing impacts: upstream, by changing how products are designed and manufactured, trying to increase the share of recycled materials stemming from tyre recycling. And downstream, by raising awareness and building the systems and infrastructure to keep materials in circulation and enshrine product sustainability along the whole life-cycle.
A bunch of raw materials essential to mobility with multiple lives
Tyres are complex-products made from rubber, steel and textile fibres. Safety always comes first, so tyre manufacturers use the very best quality raw materials and those should not be considered as disposable once used. Every year in the European Union, more than 300,000,000 tyres reach end-of-life. Turning a waste challenge into opportunities requires a lot of smart innovation and well-functioning industrial value chains. Typically, tyre wire of very high quality is recovered and then remelted in steel works to make new steel while rubber finds new life at playgrounds and sports arenas (baselayers, infill, shockpads), moulded objects, building applications, road constructions, animal welfare, paints … Among this myriad of applications, the highest environmental and circularity gains are nowadays obtained through the use of crumb rubber as infill in synthetic turfs, a major market for ELT-derived rubber representing 37% of the demand.
Improving proper management of ELTs in Europe
According to 2018 data, as much as 94% of total end-of-life tyres (ELT) across EU were collected and treated for energy and material recovery. After the EU landfill ban back in in 2003, two main alternatives were left: energy recovery and material recovery.
- To burn or not to burn
The energy content of an ELT can be recovered through incineration (e.g., cement kilns). However, the valuable materials contained in the tyres are lost, and only a small fraction of the energy originally used in the production of a tyre is recovered.
Right now, in Europe, for one tyre that is incinerated in energy recovery processes, there is one tyre that is recycled into rubber granulate. And this is clearly a testimony that there is room for improvement. First, because tyre-recycled products are truly sustainable from human health, resource and environmental standpoint, and their quality enables to substitute primary raw materials in a number of applications. Second, because tyres are made for a large part of rubber which is a critical raw material, mostly imported from non-EU countries. Recycling tyres thus does not only contribute to sustainability but also to decrease Europe’s dependency on raw materials’ imports.
- Tyre recycling: the safest and most sustainable option to recover value from waste
Life Cycle Assessment studies (LCA) clearly demonstrate that the current most sustainable solution for waste tyres is material recycling via granulation into new high-quality raw materials, which substitute for virgin rubber and steel in new goods. This is because extraction and processing of virgin materials has always an impact on the environment. In Europe only 12% of the material resources used come from recycled products and recovered materials.
Environmental benefits of tyre recycling are clear: for each tonne of ELT going through material recycling instead of co-incineration, the environment is spared from 700 kg of CO2 emissions. This confirms that ELT recycling supports the overarching objectives set in The European Green Deal. Furthermore, LCA also shows that compared to tyre incineration, recycling also reaps substantial benefits in a number of other environmental categories, mitigating not only global warming but also acidification and granting better air quality.
- Prevent microplastic releases while preserving a well-functioning circular value chain
Sustainability is part of all recyclers’ DNA, whether they are small to medium family businesses or large operators. As a result, the EU’s objective to prevent the release of microplastics into the environment is entirely supported by the recycling industry.
Today, infill materials used in artificial turf pitches are a source of microplastics’ releases and tyre recyclers together with the entire tyre value chain not only recognize this but have taken practical steps to address this problem before it came under scrutiny.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), an EU agency, has now proposed two options: 1) a ban on placing infill on the market or 2) a derogation combined with the implementation of strict risk management measures, such as mandatory fencing around pitches, preventing the spread of rubber granules outside the field. From an environmental standpoint, as both proposed measures achieve the same goal to avoid microplastic releases from infill, a derogation from the ban for tyre-derived infill should be prioritized under the strict implementation of CEN standardized risk management measures. This is the only option to avoid throwing the baby with the bathwater by preserving the environmental benefits of tyre recycling and avoiding far-reaching negative impacts.
As we commit to tackle global warming and to a deepening understanding of the effects of climate change within the European Green Deal, an integrated approach, aligning around policy actions opens up opportunities for the environmental benefits of tyre recycling to scale up. If a ban would take place, this would very likely send 50,000,000 end-of-life tyres annually for incineration, stockpiling or illegal landfilling which would be deleterious for the environment and on top the least circular option.
Furthermore, a ban would create a huge socio-economic impact for both tyre recyclers and communities enjoying the multiple benefits of practicing in sports fields using recycled materials. First, to date, there is no alternative for infill materials able to fulfil the same performance and safety requirements needed for both leisure and intensive use in sport’s competition all year round and under the most demanding climate conditions. Second, players and communities will be burdened with additional cost and deprived from playing on a number of sport fields across Europe at a time when regenerating social cohesion is absolutely vital. These, together with the environmental benefits of tyre recycling, are probably the reasons that led Norway to anticipate to EU’s legislation and already implement binding risk management measures that will reduce plastic pollution from artificial turf pitches. Let this be the guiding principle also for the EU decision!
Read more about mechanical tyre recycling on EuRIC’s brochure.