But where do they go? While more than 70% are recovered, the majority of the others are landfilled or dumped illegally. It is a question that has been bothering the European Union for some time, and under the Landfill Directive means that from 2006 the final destination will not be landfill.
The first step was taken in 2003 when the landfilling of whole used tyres was outlawed. In two years time, shredded tyres will also be banned from landfills, although they may still be used for engineering purposes on landfills.
Meanwhile, the End-of-Life Vehicles Directive will mean that more and more vehicle tyres will be recovered and recycled. The directive sets recovery and recycling targets of 85% and 80% of the average weight of a vehicle respectively to be met by January 1 2006 deadline. These figures increase to 95% and 85% in 2015. Tyres make up around 3% of the total weight of a vehicle and therefore recovering tyres would lead to an almost complete recovery in terms of their value.
Plans the UK has for tyre recovery include cement kilns, which would take tyres as fuel; Lafarge Cement, Castle Cement and Rugby Cement have all expressed interest. Meanwhile, chemicals company Coalite, in Bolsover, Derbyshire, is another company that has registered its interest, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs literature. It would pyrolise up to 90,000 tonnes of tyres per year, that is effectively cook them in the absence of oxygen, thus breaking the tyre down to its constituent parts rubber, carbon, gas, oil and steel, which could then be reused.
In the wider context, research is also underway on creating longer-lasting tyres (without compromising safety) in order to reduce the number of tyres entering the system in the first place.
Fly-tippers will also be tackled, and the possibility of a tyre helpline has been mooted.
There are, however, a number of other companies that are capitalising on the fact that used tyres will otherwise be sitting redundant, and are already enjoying a certain degree of success. Anglo Environmental Tyre Recycling of South Benfleet, Essex, is just one such firm, which spotted an opening.
The company compresses old vehicle tyres to form a construction block known as a Urro-Block which has been deployed for landfill cell drainage, and also for shoring up sagging riverbanks, relieving areas at risk of flooding.
Anglo Environmentals managing director Steve Mendes explains: We set up in 1999 and had researched the market for 18 months prior to setting up production. We were aware from 1998 of the impending landfill bans in 2003 and 2006, and that was a catalyst to look for a way to act on it.
If tyre recycling doesnt sound like the first option for a change of career, then thats probably because Mendes was coming from an industry not a million miles away. Id been in the motor salvage industry for 20 years, and had considerable experience of end-of-life vehicles and tyres, and had an insight from that. We just thought that with the coming legislation it could work if we found a sustainable solution, says Mendes.
The answer came from the US, where Anglo Environmental found, as Mendes puts it, the right deal in the wrong place, that of creating blocks from compressed tyres. However, the US doesnt have the landfill or flooding problems that the UK endures, with its wide-open spaces.
What Anglo Environmental does is compress 100 vehicle tyres into the Urro-Block, which measures 5ft2 by 2ft 4. The compressed block is then bound together by five hi-tensile 4mm electrogalvanised wires. The strength of th