Tire recycling, innovation and uses

In the upcoming weeks, I will be writing about brands that are creating accessories from recycled tire inner tubes. 

As a prelude to these articles, I wanted to talk about tire recycling and uses, and how much have we advanced to create greener tires? 

How are Tires Made? 

Tires are essentially made of several layers of rubber, thread and polyester.  But if you want to understand the whole process, play the video below. 

Tires take us places, and they need to be safe and sturdy, which is why they are so difficult to recycle. 

I got these interesting facts from The Perfect Rubber Mulch website:

  • Approximately 1 billion tires are produced in the world each year in over 450 factories. In the next few years that number is expected to reach 1.7 billion!
  • The 100 tire companies in the U.S. make around $15 billion a year!
  • The four largest tire companies make more than 75% of the revenue.
  • Around 200 different raw materials are used to make one tire!
  • Passenger car tires generally need to be replaced every 50,000 miles. With the average American driving around 12,000 miles a year, a lot of old tires are produced!
  • As of 2003, markets existed for around 80% of scrap tires! This is up from 17% in 1990.
  • 38 states ban whole tires from landfills and 11 states have banned tires from landfills altogether! 

Tires pose an environmental problem because we cannot buy less of them. If a tire is worn or if it tears, you must buy a new one! Disposing of them is an inevitable fact, even if you buy a used tire it will eventually need to be replaced. 

Tire Recycling

Tire recycling was virtually zero in the 1990s and it has become a necessity since disposal in landfills is illegal in most states. Once upon a time, there were 2 billion tires in landfills across the United States. As of 2014, 90% of these tires have been repurposed and used for roadway construction, playgrounds and auto mats. 

According to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, there are three key markets for scrap tires: fuel, ground rubber applications and civil engineering (construction) projects. Almost half of the scrap tires are used for Tire-Derived Fuel (TDF), which produces the same energy as petroleum and 25% more energy than coal. TDF is commonly used in cement manufacturing, pulp and paper industry, industrial boilers and boilers at electric power plants.

The use of tires as fuels is controversial. Yes, you are solving one environmental problem (landfill disposal) while perpetuating another one (our dependency on oil and air pollution). The EPA claims that the emissions from TDF are similar to conventional fuel (translation: it is just as toxic!) but there are other groups who claim that the test data is problematic, and that there are things we still don't know about pollution from tire incineration, which could be worse than burning fuel or coal. 

US Scrap Tire Disposition (2015)

Credit: Rubber Manufacturers Association, 2016

What I take away from this information: TDF should be seen as a temporary solution, and advances in tire manufacturing and recycling are urgently needed.

Of course, not everywhere has the same stringent regulations and logistics in place to recycle tires. Here is a video showing photos of the world's largest tire dump, located in Sulabiya, Kuwait. It is so big that it can be seen FROM SPACE. Apparently, the government is starting to do something about this problem...but I remain skeptical, as politics gets in the way

Greener Tires

Tire innovation tackles more than just the tire disposal problem. The introduction of the radial tire in 1946 improved safety and fuel consumption in personal vehicles. Since then, more advancements in tire design and materials have helped increased fuel efficiency in cars. This is crucial as 86% of a tire's environmental performance is due to its impact in fuel consumption!

This article from the Energy Collective highlights some unconventional ingredients that are being used in tire manufacturing. In summary, dandelions are being investigated as a new source of latex (natural rubber), orange oil is used in Yokohama's tires to replace 80% of the petroleum used in manufacturing tires, and other vegetable oils are also being used by Sumitomo Rubber industries and Mercedes-Benz. 

Check out Yokohama's Orange Oil Tire ad, and if you want to geek out on tire science click here

Pretty neat! For a summary of sustainability initiatives to create eco-friendly tires, read this article from the Tire Review

Innovations in Tire Recycling

tire reuse ecofriendly decorative

At the rate that we consume and replace tires, it would be a ridiculous proposition that we just turn all those old tires into swings and planters. There's a limit to that! 

One innovation that I am excited about is this paper  about using the carbon from old tires as a component in lithium ion batteries. Another scientist in Australia has figured out how to use tires as a replacement for coal and other materials used in steelmaking. However, other innovations can be simpler while addressing problems in the community, such as the use of tires to create artificial coral reefs and ameliorate uncontrolled land development in Costa Rica

In the meantime, tires are used to build roads, athletic fields and as mulch, among others. It seems that the rate of tire recycling is high in industrialized countries, but it remains a challenge in other parts of the world. Colombia, for example, has a good program to collect tires, but they are having trouble re-selling the material as there is little demand for it. 

Can you make new tires from old tires?

I'm not an expert, but I tried searching this on Google and nothing came up. My guess is that the energy required to take the tire apart to create a new tire is not cost effective. (Any experts out there who'd like to comment on this?) 

Which part of the tire is used to make fashion accessories?

Most of the accessories made from recycled tires are actually made from the inner tubes. The inner tube is basically a doughnut-shaped balloon that is inserted in the tires of bicycles, motorcycle, heavy trucks, buses and tractors. It helps the tires maintain their air pressure. 


How do I properly dispose of my tires?

It really depends on where you live, but the first point of information would be your local council.

  • If you are in the US, click here.
  • If you are in Canada, click here.
  • If you are in Australia, click here
  • If you are in the UK, click here

Did you learn something new today? I hope so :)  

Stay tuned for the upcoming blog posts where I will talk about brands that make beautiful things out of tires!