Until the recent increase in the public’s environmental awareness, many people gave little thought to their car tyres beyond punctures and replacement costs. But these days, most of us are aware that tyres are major potential polluters.
Tyre recycling UK regulations
More than 486,000 tonnes of used tyres (around 55 million tyres) are generated annually in the UK. Both tyre manufacturers and end users are responsible for disposing of waste tyres responsibly.
In the UK, under the Landfill Regulations 2002, whole tyres were banned from landfill sites in 2003, followed by end-of-life or shredded tyres in 2006 in accordance with the 2006 EU Landfill Directive.
So, what now happens to our tyres after tyre disposal?
Recycle, incinerate or retread?
The 2006 EU Landfill Directive caused a tyre recycling boom. Today, around 87% of used tyres are diverted from landfill sites in Europe. 34% are recycled, 32% are incinerated for energy production and the remainder are sent for retreading.
Tyre recycling has three major environmental benefits:
- It reduces the amount of new material needed to manufacture new tyres or other rubber products.
- It reduces the amount of energy needed to produce new tyres and rubber products, in turn reducing the production of greenhouse gases.
- It reduces air, land and water pollution caused by tyres dumped in landfills or the natural landscape.
Responsible tyre recycling comes with a range of other benefits to the environment. It also reduces the risk of discarded, highly combustible tyres catching fire in storage and releasing toxic chemicals.
Incinerating tyres for energy production
Tyre-derived-fuel (TDF) can be made from all kinds of scrap tyres, either by incinerating whole tyres or smaller, uniform pieces called rubber crumbs. TDF fuel has lower emissions than traditional fuels, and with proper emission controls, its production can be an ‘environmentally sound’ tyre disposal method.
Some discarded tyres can be retreaded or ‘remoulded’. That means creating ‘like-new’ in an inexpensive way. It’s estimated that 50% of UK truck and bus tyres have been retreaded.
The tyre recycling process
Tyre steel rims can either be refurbished or used as scrap metal. The remaining tyre normally consists of steel, textile and rubber, with traces of oil and other chemicals.
There are three principal methods of tyre recycling in the UK:
Ambient mechanical grinding
Scrap tyres are passed through a shredder. The shredded material goes through one granulation process to remove steel and fibre and another to produce a smoother particle.
This minimal energy method uses liquid nitrogen to make tyres brittle and break them into smaller pieces, which are cooled, separated, then milled to produce a very fine rubber crumb.
This process uses thermal decomposition in the absence of oxygen. The rubber is softened in a reactor, forcing the tyre molecules to break. Without oxygen, the tyre doesn’t combust. The resulting products include a solid plus a liquid and a gas that can be used as an alternative fuel.
Uses for rubber crumb
The rubber crumb produced by these processes is a very useful and versatile product. It can be used to make sports surfaces, safety mats for children’s playgrounds, carpet underlay, soundproof walls, bridge foundations, speed bumps, and rubberised asphalt.
The future of tyres and tyre recycling
Newer, greener tyre recycling systems and plants are opening up in the UK. Currently, nearly 100% of UK tyres are recycled or reused in some way. Carlton Forest announced their Advanced Conversion Technology system last year, which will make maximum use of scrap tyres and allow their plant to go off-grid in the near future, using their own sustainable energy. Recycled tyres are set to be used for more roads and motorways, creating quieter, more durable surfaces.
Most major tyre companies are developing more eco-friendly tyres, made from more sustainable materials and designed to last longer, shred less and self-repair. For instance, Michelin has a sustainability plan that aims to use 80% sustainable materials and recycle 100% of its tyres by 2048.
How should you dispose of your used car tyres?
Recycling isn’t the only method of eco-friendly tyre disposal. Old tyres can be used as leisure and exercise equipment by schools, sports clubs or even zoos! They can also be reused whole as stools, planters and water play trays, and broken down to make numerous things: there are dozens of tyre reuse ideas.
Your local municipal recycling centre will usually accept tyres from your private car for a small charge. There may be a limit to how many you can dispose of and often—your council website should have details. Tyre disposal by businesses, however, is classified as commercial waste.
Some garages, too, will recycle your old tyres when fitting new ones, usually at a cost. There are also tyre recycling centres; always check if they’re fully licensed, though. You can find your local tyre recycling centre using Recycle Now’s handy search form.