The environmental impact of tires has reached alarming dimensions, but in Italy, a way has been found to transform used tires into a resource for the future.

The disposal of end-of-life tires has always been a big problem, in the past, there was still no adequate technology to allow the recycling of vulcanized rubber; consequently, the old tires ended up irremediably being disposed of in the environment in landfill areas, whether authorized or not, that they were buried or discharged into the sea. Over the years and with the increase in car traffic worldwide, this problem has become increasingly large and alarming, but further studies are showing that this represents only a small part of the problem.

The danger of microplastics

The crux of the matter is the abnormal amount of plastic that is polluting the world’s oceans, and specifically the microplastics, which are considered by far the most dangerous of all waste materials that end up at sea. Since the microscopic dimensions of these particles cause them to be ingested by plankton, in fact, unlike other wastes, they end up effectively entering the food chain.

Plankton assimilates the microscopic plastic particles and is in turn ingested by fish and molluscs, which are then fished and sold to supermarkets, restaurants and food industries. Their journey, therefore, ends on our tables and, subsequently, in our body, with all the harmful consequences that can derive for health.

As surprising as it may seem, numerous recent studies have shown that almost 50% of the microplastics contained in the oceans come from the wear of tires, brake pads and asphalt. Washing machines are also mentioned as responsible for this type of pollution, since at each wash the textile fibres of synthetic origin, such as polyester and nylon, wear out releasing microscopic plastic particles which are then discharged together with the washing water. Through the sewers, they finally reach the seas.

But it does not end here. Unfortunately, microplastics are also found in cosmetics, especially in scrubbers used to make skin smooth and soft, in many kinds of toothpaste, in cheaper cotton buds and a myriad of other commercial products for daily use.

Tires out of order

If the problem of microplastics is more difficult to manage since not even the filters of current purifiers can retain the finest particulate matter, the matter changes when it comes to macroscopic waste, and in particular PFU, or tires down.

The chalking of the tires continues to take place even after they have been used. The sad images of the seabed of some areas, even along our coasts, or those of the open landfills and the mounds of old buried tires, appear more and more often both in the media and physically, in many peripheral areas of our cities and even in rural and wooded areas.

To put a stop to this, starting in 2006, the European Union has sanctioned the ban on the disposal of end-of-life tires. It has allocated funds for companies operating in the sector of recovering old tires.

The first induced to undergo an upgrade was that of remanufactured tires, which however had poor results given the lack of confidence of motorists in regards to these tires. The fears are completely unfounded and derive only from a lack of information, given that the only limitation of the retreaded tires is related to the duration offered, which is less than that of the conventional ones. Their cost, however, is equally low and therefore very convenient for those who do not travel high mileage.

The green tire revolution

One of the biggest obstacles to creating a virtuous cycle for the recycling of used tires, as mentioned at the beginning of our article, was the impossibility of treating vulcanized rubber.

After the 2006 veto on disposal, however, several companies and consortia were born across Europe aimed at finding a sustainable method. Thanks to the new technologies, it was possible to develop a process capable of devulcanizing the rubber, returning it to its original properties. In this way, it was possible to transform the old tires into recycled rubber granulate, suitable for a wide range of uses ranging from construction to reintegration in the same production cycle of the tires.

The applications are many, several already in place, we will, therefore, limit ourselves to mentioning the project carried out by the Italian consortium EcoTyre, which with rubber granulate managed to create what it called green tires, as they were made with a mix containing a high percentage of granulate.

In the tests carried out by EcoTyre and presented at Autopromotec 2020, held recently in Bologna, green tires have proven to be among the best tires in terms of resistance and durability, and the Italian consortium has seen a boom in requests from part of the companies operating in the sector.

Prospects for the environment

The direct consequence of the success achieved by green tires was the increase in the collection of end-of-life tires. In addition to the creation of new jobs, generated by the related industry, a small ecological miracle is finally taking place, namely the removal of old tires from landfill sites and, in particular, from the seabed.

Last year alone, in fact, almost 65,000 kilos of used tires were recovered which had been disposed of in different Italian regions, 3,000 kilos were instead removed from the Rapallo coast, which had risen from the seabed following the recent storm.

This gives us hope that in the short term future, the radical turnaround in the tire sector will spread to other European countries and the world.

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