2019 marked a turning point for the tyre and rubber recycling industry. Having been under great threat for the past few years, it looked last summer like the European Commission was about to announce the end of tyre granulate infill, currently the major outlet for end- of-life tyre (ELT) recyclers. Contrary to expectations, however, EU’s executive spokesperson Natasha Bertaud confirmed last July that “no such proposal is under preparation from the Commission”, thus refuting media reports that the Commission was planning to ban artificial turfs. A similar decision was announced shortly afterwards by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Nevertheless, the last two or three years have seen an explosion in negative publicity within Europe and America surrounding the use of ELT-derived rubber granulate, leading to a considerable drop in demand for such material. States and municipalities in the USA and Europe have continued to propose bans or other sanctions on the incorporation of crumb rubber in playgrounds and sports pitches despite over 100 separate studies reaching the conclusion that its use in these applications carries no proven risk to humans or to the environment.
Therefore, it is more essential than ever before that other applications for ELTs are considered, developed or expanded.
In the past two years, national and European waste policies have begun to shift away from the linear model of “take, make, use and dispose” to a more circular approach whereby the value of resources is maintained for as long as possible. A mandatory minimum recycled content of over 25% has been adopted for certain plastics, giving an unprecedented boost within Europe to the markets for recycled plastics. It is clear that Europe’s market for recycled rubber will never improve unless regulators make a decisive move and impose minimum recycled contents for new products.
Ten years ago, professional bottlers would have said it was not only impossible but also dangerous to incorporate recycled PET in beverage bottles. Now, with the help of the legislator, major water and soda bottlers incorporate 25%, 50% and, in some cases, 100% rPET in their manufacturing processes. Without the help of the legislator, it is too hard to shake preconceived ideas, conventional wisdom and powerful industrial lobbies.
Fifteen years ago, rubber regeneration was limited to often- polluting and high-energy-consuming thermochemical processes. In the past decade, breakthroughs have been made – especially in China – with non-polluting processes that have doubled the mechanical properties of the regenerated compounds; we are getting closer and closer to real devulcanization and, with current technologies, it is possible to incorporate around 10% regenerated rubber in a new tyre without really affecting its properties. The proportion can be as high as 70% for technical parts in a closed-loop system.
Rubber is definitely more complicated to regenerate than plastics or metals – but without the help of the legislator, tyre and rubber recycling will remain the “poor relation” of the recycling industry.
In Europe and the USA, tyre scrap is generally treated as a low-value- added material which is turned into either energy or used as a filler for turf infill, mixed with asphalt or used to make cheap furniture, etc. Less than 1% in Europe is regenerated into reclaimed rubber. In China, by contrast, more than 95% of ELTs are turned into high-value-added reclaimed rubber; the rate is similar in India and demand for reclaimed rubber is greater than supply, thus forcing many major players to import European tyre scrap which is generally considered of higher quality than local material.
In a world where exports of all types of scrap are being restricted, it is important to start giving consideration to adding value to rubber scrap in its country of origin and exporting it only after reprocessing. This is already the trend for plastics and metals, and it should be followed by rubber too.
Europe has one of the best feedstocks in the world for making regenerated rubber; the European Parliament should step in – just as it did for plastics – in order to change mindsets and force European rubber industries to incorporate a minimum recycled content in their production so long as the properties of their end products are not greatly affected.
We believe mandatory recycled contents of 5-10% for tyres and 10- 20% for technical rubber parts are definitely workable.
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%.
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.
For both tyres and non-tyre rubber scrap, the material recovery technologies are usually the same.
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.
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.
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.
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.