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Tyre recycling not yet pitch perfect

Around 3.2 million tonnes of tyres reach end-of-life in Europe every year, just over half (52%) of which are recycled with 40% going for energy recovery. ‘Rubber recycling is definitely a frontrunner in the circular economy with clear success stories,’ insists industry specialist Alex van Gelderen.

‘Mechanical treatment rates have increased somewhat in the last few years while incineration has gone down a little,’ said Van Gelderen of the European Tyres Manufacturing Association (ETRMA) during a tyre recycling webinar held by EuRIC. The vast bulk (99%) of recycled tyres are processed in Europe.

A recurring discussion in the sector is the potential ban on the use of recycled rubber infill in soccer pitches and at other sports venues. Recyclers have not warmed to the idea, which is raised periodically by environmental lobby groups.

Ban in six years?

‘Annually, we’re seeing around 1 600 tonnes loss of material – in the shape of microplastics – due to heavy use,’ estimates Elise Vitali, founder of EEB, a network of eco-conscious citizens with around 30 million supporters worldwide. ‘The figures indicate that recycled rubber infill is not a sustainable nor circular use. Even if recyclers are able to do better, ask yourself; what is the level of “acceptable leakage” in the environment? In my opinion, a ban is the best option.’

To accommodate the recycling industry, Vitali proposes a six-year transition period to other applications for rubber tyre scrap. To her and like-minded individuals, this is generous. Recycling stakeholders present figures that claim the opposite. ‘Simply put, a ban on granulate infill would result in 527 000 tonnes of end-of-life tyres having to find another disposal route per year… That’s not good news,’ argues Lars Rahauge, a consultant on environment and business development with Genan.

These tyres would probably go to co-incineration, mostly outside the EU as the demand for tyre fuel in cement kilns within EU is notably decreasing, he points out. ‘If recyclers in Europe cannot find sufficient interest elsewhere, the tyres will simply be incinerated here – without energy recovery, which is even worse.’

He estimates around one million tonnes of discarded tyres end up in European cement kilns every year. ‘Climate activists are forgetting the fact that, for each tonne of end-of-life tyres processed into rubber granulate to create artificial turf instead of being incinerated, the climate is being spared emissions of 700kg Co2.’

More professional attitude

Sonia Megert of Tyre Recycling Solutions agrees: ‘We are facing a headwind from strong industry lobbies.’ She points out that natural rubber producers are also extremely concerned over a recent outbreak of disease in trees in Asia. She cites newspaper headlines from Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia to underline the importance of a recycled alternative to virgin rubber.

Megert also observes that rubberised asphalt specifications are emerging, paving the way for dedicated regulations. She laments that tyre recyclers have made mistakes in the past over road construction projects. ‘We need to get much more professional. It would be great if we could create a centralised database to properly monitor current practices and to enable data collection.’

ETRMA secretary general Fazilet Cinaralp says: ‘Regulatory measures are often the best tools to stimulate a shift in thinking, sparking progress.’ She stresses that the industry needs legislation based on science rather than sentiment. ‘We need to keep in mind the long-term visibility of recycling benefits. But, first and foremost, we need to stand together. If we can’t agree on the path to follow, we will never get there.’

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