Rubber tyres: recycled but not yet circular
The Netherlands has the ambition to reach a circular economy by 2050. In 2017, the small country with a sustainable image, collected and recycled almost all of its discarded car tyres. But just how circular is this? New research reveals struggles to move beyond the popular misconception that recycling is always circular and sustainable.
The research was conducted by the CRESTING Work Package 1 team based at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development. Their paper, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, provides critical insights into the strengths and weaknesses of existing operations in the Dutch tyre recovery sector and gives recommendations for making the process more circular, fair and sustainable.
From linear to circular
The circular economy is championed by many as the solution for the current linear economy, which is characterised by unsustainably high levels of resource extraction and waste generation. Through reusing, sharing, repairing, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling, the circular economy seeks to create a close-loop systems that maximise the usefulness of materials and products throughout their lifecycle.
The resulting reduction in waste and demand for new materials aims to create sustainable and fair resource cycles that tackle global issues of biodiversity loss, climate change, and overconsumption of the world’s limited resources.
High rate of tyre recycling in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands, the company RecyBEM BV organises the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system for rubber tyres by managing discarded tyres. The EPR system was developed in the 1990s and builds on the “polluters pay” principle, making producers responsible for the end-of-life management of their products.
Measuring recycling success against the principles of the circular economy
In the last ten years RecyBEM B.V, has successfully collected 100% of discarded tyres, and reached recovery rates of above 99%. Although these numbers sound impressive, the researchers were interested in how this success would hold up when measured against the principles of the circular economy.
Recycled, but not necessarily sustainable or circular
What the researchers found was in line with the popular misconception that the circular economy is only about achieving a high rate of recycling.
In 2017, the Dutch EPR collected and recycled almost nine million used tyres. “Although recycling dominates the current system, we saw that the EPR system does not focus on more sustainable value recovery options like refusing, reducing, reusing, retreading, and repurposing,” say the research team.
Although recycling dominates the current system, we saw that the EPR system does not focus on more sustainable value recovery options like refusing, reducing, reusing, retreading, and repurposing.
Instead, of being used to produce new tyres, recycled rubber tyres were used mainly for lower value applications such as insulation materials, road construction, and rubber granulate for artificial sports fields.
Sustainable design not incentivised
The research also revealed that EPR system has done little to incentivise the design of tyres with a longer lifespan that are easier to reuse, retread and recycle. “As tyre consumption increases, there is a growing need for tyres with a longer life span. The researchers recommend that EPRs should work directly across the value chain for a more durable design,” explain the authors.
Less demand for tyres means lower environmental cost throughout the value chain – from production to end-of-life management, including the demand for virgin rubber. “In the end this is the final objective of a circular society.”
A third of tyres are exported with unknown consequences
“Our research also showed that around a third of discarded tyres in the Netherlands are exported”. Although a lack of data meant the quality of the treatment and final destination could not be determined, the research teams argues that “based on the wider literature we can assume many of these exported waste tyres will not be treated properly, thereby causing significant human and environmental harm”.
“This reveals a gap in current EPR systems, which only follow the first lifecycle of a product, rely heavily on recycling and do not properly track exported wastes, both within and outside the EU,” say the authors. “Stringent quality control is needed to guarantee the functionality of such exports”.
They also advocate multiple uses as long as they do not come at the cost of unsustainable practices. “Proper tracking and continued responsibility of the producer is thus essential”.
“In many ways, a small tyre bears the load of our fast-paced society that is living beyond its means and facing a climate crisis, biodiversity loss and ever-shrinking planetary boundaries,” they reflect.
What is key for a the transition to a fair and sustainable circular future is alternative means of transport, and slower and more convivial lifestyles
“No level of recycling is enough to make tyres sustainable when the Netherlands consumes 8.5 millions passenger car tyres a year. This shows that what is key for a the transition to a fair and sustainable circular future is not just recycling operations but rather alternative means of transport, and slower and more convivial lifestyles, which are less resource intensive and have a lower environmental footprint”.
Campbell-Johnston, K., Friant, M. C., Thapa, K., Lakerveld, D., & Vermeulen, W. J. (2020). How circular is your tyre: Experiences with extended producer responsibility from a circular economy perspective. Journal of Cleaner Production, 122042.