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EU should promote new uses for old tyres

Handbook End of life tyres 2000

This time last year, I wrote that EU progress in recycling end-of-life tyres had stalled. Although that still remains the case, there is plenty of evidence that renewed attempts are being made to identify and promote new and better ways of making good use of old tyres.

One of the problems has been that we had no truly indicative data of what we were dealing with. Popular wisdom suggested that Europe generated around two million tonnes of waste tyres annually, but recent work by the European Tyre Recycling Association suggests a figure closer to three million tonnes.

The reasons for this were hinted at in last year’s MRW Handbook, with some European countries not doing a good enough job in counting their arisings accurately, and were happy to live with numbers that appeared to fulfil expectations even if they were less than credible.

Counting waste is not an exact science, but there is a need to make a better fist of it. We need a greater clarity of approach, genuine transparency and, importantly, a common and credible methodology.

At the root of the difficulties is the somewhat ill-defined concept of ‘producer responsibility’. This means that EU member states have taken widely different approaches to the problem of waste tyre collection, each with its own difficulties and failings.

Here in the UK, we have followed a broadly market-based approach which, although not perfect, has worked reasonably well. Germany took a similar path. Despite this free-market approach, it is the UK Government which calculates our annual recycling performance – another reason why our own data is still widely respected.

I have recently referred to producer responsibility as the “good idea that failed”. In some of its forms it is very cumbersome, prone to under-counting and focused more on ‘disposal’ than on beneficial recycling. As a concept, producer responsibility was clearly well-intentioned but failed to promote a visionary agenda. We will be judged on how we deal with end-of-life tyres, and we must do better because the opportunities are there.

So how do we expand the current uses to which our old tyres are put as well as avoid an over-dependency in their use as a high-grade fuel? To be truly successful, the EU should be taking a lead in mandating some of these new uses, and promote an environment which favours recycling over expedient disposal and sets an example that others can confidently follow.

An essential step must be to introduce measures which really do favour the ‘proximity principle’ and incentivise financially forms of recycling carried out as close to the point of arisings as possible. This in turn will mitigate against the current over-dependence on the export of waste tyres and drive the development of better and more valuable solutions closer to home.

Far from being a problem, end-of-life tyres really can be a commercial and environmental opportunity for all of us in Europe.

Potential uses for tyre-derived material

Construction bales

Carbon products

Drainage, backfill

Gaskets, hoses, rings and seals

Landfill engineering

Rail sleepers

Riverbank reinforcement

Expansion joints

Equestrian arenas

Stabilisation

Sound barriers

Moulded/extruded parts

Sheet materials and roofing

Tyre-derived fuel (for kilns/furnaces)

Retreading

Sports/play surfaces

Flooring materials

Carpet underlay

Rubber-modified bitumen

Peter Taylor is secretary general of the Tyre Recovery Association

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