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Tyres & Rubber

Extract BIR Annual Report 2023

On the threshold of a transformation

2023 proved to be a watershed year for tyre recycling in Europe. After many years in which the crumb rubber infill market underpinned growth in the recycling of end-of-life tyres (ELTs), the European Commission confirmed in late September that this infill was to be banned from use in synthetic turf surfaces at the end of an eight-year transition period because of the risks to human health thought to be posed by its content of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. The recycling industry has repeatedly questioned the data used to support the ban, but to no avail.

To the general public and even to legislators, eight years may sound like a long time to prepare for this ban but, as every industry expert will tell you, the impact of this ruling will become visible immediately in investment decisions. Crumb rubber infill’s card has been well marked and demand will reflect this. Already, there has been an observable trend towards ELTs being lost to co-incineration, even though burning tyres is far more harmful to the environment than material recycling. As a result, tyre recycling companies are now struggling to obtain ELTs – the lifeblood of their operations. 

The ban has been debated for several years but the regulators have ultimately waved away the commonsense arguments put forward by recycling industryrepresentatives, including calls to implement risk management measures to prevent microplastic releases from synthetic turf and to introduce initiatives to create alternative markets to help those businesses that have invested heavily in equipment to produce infill.

Without doubt, the ban is set to transform the tyre recycling industry in Europe. Over 80% of the infill market relies on recycled rubber derived from tyres. At the height of its use in Europe’s sports pitches, more than 500,000 tonnes of ELTs were processed each year to make the required quantities of infill.

In effect, the door is being slammed on a market that we, rather than the tyre producers, have spent valuable time and money on cultivating. We have been forced into a position of demonstrating once again our renowned resilience and of diverting our efforts into other outlets for ELTs.

Thankfully, and as our recent meetings at BIR Conventions have confirmed, the ELT recycling arena is awash with inspiration and initiative. The rise of recovered carbon black (rCB) is a particularly rich source of optimism, presenting new opportunities for utilizing crumb rubber as a feedstock for pyrolysis plants. These facilities require large quantities of quality crumb rubber to produce high-quality rCB, which constitutes a sustainable alternative to virgin carbon black. 

With its potential to be incorporated in significant proportions, rCB promises genuine circularity and a brighter future for the industry at a time when the crumb rubber infill market has been dealt a severe blow by Europe’s ban-in-waiting. Even with a conservative estimate of a 20% substitution rate for virgin carbon black, the outlook for rCB production is highly optimistic, underscoring its viability, profitability and potential for driving innovation and environmental benefits.

360 Market Updates estimated recently that the rCB market’s worth US$ 317 million in 2022 would increase to US$ 485.5 million by 2031 and at a compound annual growth rate of 6.7% for the period from 2024 to 2031. 

As rubber recycling and rCB expert Martin von Wolfersdorff of Wolfersdorff Consulting explained to one of our more recent BIR Convention meetings, companies had struggled in the past to push recycled products into a competitive marketplace whereas demand now favoured them because end customers wanted to boost their sustainability credentials. In effect, he said, the focus had shifted from economy to ecology.

As the infill ban illustrates, legislators continue to erect hurdles to greater material recycling from ELTs. And during our panel discussion on tyre pyrolysis at last May’s BIR Convention in Amsterdam, speakers also alluded to the difficulties of building a sustainable venture in Europe given existing funding rules. But as the rise of rCB underlines, our industry fixes its eyes firmly on the future and always bounces back with further innovation.

“We have been forced into a position of demonstrating once again our renowned resilience and of diverting our efforts into other outlets for ELTs.”

Max Craipeau

Greencore Resources Ltd (CHN)
TYRES & RUBBER COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN 

IMPORTANT FACTS

The most important use of rubber is in vehicle tyres; over 70% of all the world’s rubber ends up wrapped around the wheels of cars, bicycles and trucks. Other applications are industrial rubber goods used in, for example, construction, aircraft, footwear and gloves.

With over a billion cars and commercial vehicles already in use worldwide, end-of-life tyres (ELTs) are among the largest sources of waste today. Tyres made of approximately 80% rubber compound, steel and textiles are built to last, which in turn makes them a very challenging product to recycle.

Historically, the difficulty in recycling has led to uncontrolled or illegal scrap tyre disposal, but with the formation of national ELT management companies such as Aliapur and Signus, and also the development of new end markets for tyre-derived materials, ELTs are increasingly diverted from landfills as the tyre recycling industry continues to grow.

In 2018, over 3 million tonnes of ELTs were recovered in Europe, representing a treatment rate above 96%. Taken together, Europe, the USA and Japan have an average recovery rate of 90%.

RECYCLING PROCESSES

There are several ways in which tyres can be reused or recycled. There are important differences in laws and regulations worldwide aimed at encouraging or discouraging different methods. 

The two main recycling routes are material recovery and energy recovery, and their share of ELT treatment varies from country to country. For example, the split between material recycling and energy recovery in Europe is around 50/50 whereas energy recovery accounts for a higher proportion in the USA.

MATERIAL RECOVERY
For both tyres and non-tyre rubber scrap, the material recovery technologies are usually the same.

SORTING

SHREDDING

METAL SEPARATION

Sorting: As with all other waste streams, it is important to segregate scrap according to type and to process separately to ensure the highest quality output.

Retreading: During the sorting process, tyres which still have quality casings are sent to retreaders where they are given a second life (and sometimes more) by replacing the worn tread with a new one.

Shredding: Tyres whose casings are damaged are usually sent to a shredder for size-reduction. ELT shredders are usually smaller than those used to process end-of-life vehicles but, nevertheless, they have to be extremely robust to handle such durable materials. By downsizing tyres and other rubber scraps, many recycling opportunities are opened up.

Metal separation: Rubber scrap, especially ELTs, are commonly embedded with metal and require ferrous or non-ferrous separation using magnets and/or eddy-current technologies.

Granulation: Granulators are widely used in the rubber recycling industry to further reduce the dimensions of the shredded tyres after metal separation and to produce quality rubber granules.

Pulverization: For more technical uses, rubber granules can be pulverized at ambient or cryogenic temperatures in order to produce micronized rubber powder.

ENERGY RECOVERY
In Europe, almost half of the tyres collected are used to replace coal in coal-fired power stations and in cement furnaces. Other industries, such as steel manufacturers, also use scrap tyres as a fuel in place of fossil fuels. When these industries choose ELTs over coal, they can limit their CO2 emissions by up to 30%. Compared to coal, ELTs are on average 80% cheaper while having 110% of its heat value.

TYRE PYROLYSIS
Halfway between material and energy recovery lies tyre pyrolysis, a technique that heats whole or shredded tyres in a reactor vessel containing an oxygen-free atmosphere in order to extract fuel and other components.

APPLICATIONS

For ELTs following the material recovery route, applications are endless but rarely follow the circular economy model. This is contrary to what is happening in other waste streams such as plastics and metals.

Applications depend mostly on dimensions:

  • Shredded tyres/rubber (+/- up to 200 mm)

    In civil engineering works, shredded tyres can be used as a filler to stabilize weak soil and also as insulation for roads, bridge abutments, etc.

  • Granulated tyres/rubber (+/- up to 20 mm)

    One of the major outlets for ELTs and other rubber scrap is in granule form for artificial turf and playgrounds.

  • Pulverized tyres/rubber (+/- up to 2 mm)

    Coarser rubber powder is used in asphalt applications to improve road performance, reduce noise levels and lower maintenance costs.

    Finer rubber powder (micronized) can be incorporated at low levels as a filler in virgin rubber compounds and can be further processed into reclaimed/regenerated rubber, which is currently the only way to use ELTs and other rubber scrap in line with the circular economy model.

Tyres also contain significant amounts of steel wiring which can be fully recovered and used as raw material by the steelmaking sector.

ELTs following the energy recovery route are basically used as alternative fuel.

RECYCLING FACTS

  • In 2018, over 3 million tonnes of ELTs were recovered in Europe, representing a treatment rate above 96%.

  • Taken together, Europe, the USA and Japan have an average ELT recovery rate of 90%.

  • ELTs used as fuel are on average 80% cheaper than coal while having 110% of its heat value.