Tread carefully: recycling tyres

From next month, all tyres must be recycled. But some designers are already finding ingenious ways to reuse them, from making shoes to building new road surfaces.

By Hester Lacey
Thursday 20 October 2011 13:15

Tyres are tough and durable, and they have to be. An average car tyre will travel around 20,000 miles over its lifetime. But what happens when they reach the end of the road? According to the latest Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) figures, 48 million tyres, weighing 480,000 tons, were scrapped in 2004. Since 2003, only shredded tyres have been permitted in landfill, and this, too, will be prohibited by the EU from 1 July.

From that date, all car and truck tyres will have to be recovered, recycled and reused. "I can't think of any other product that has had to reach 100 per cent recovery levels," says Peter Taylor, secretary of the Tyre Recovery Association. "But we can cope."

So what happens when you leave an elderly, balding tyre at the garage? "I would hope that you'd be asked for an environmental charge of £1 or £1.50," says Taylor. "Your garage or car dealer will have a collection agreement with a tyre collector: our members collect about 70 per cent of the country's tyres. The collector has a contract with a processor, and the next stage is reuse or recycling."

One immediate concern linked to the new legislation is a potential increase in fly-tipping. Recently, for example, 18 40ft containers of tyres were abandoned in Cheshire. "It is just wilfulness, as the channels exist for dealing with tyres responsibly," says Taylor. "We don't want to see our products littering the hedgerows and there is no need for it. Strong and effective enforcement from the Environment Agency is needed."

Currently, around a quarter of old tyres are reused and around half are recycled in some way. To make up the shortfall, there are some imaginative ways to give an old tyre a new lease of life ...


1 As a building material

Almost any brick wall could potentially be a tyre wall, says Mischa Hewitt, project manager at Earthship Brighton. The self-contained Earthship Brighton building, for example, contains 900 old tyres, weighing around nine tons. The tyres have to be filled with earth. "You shovel the soil in and tamp it down," explains Mischa Hewitt. Using local earth is particularly eco-friendly, he points out, as there is no transport involved. "Earthships, for example, are often built into the sides of hills, so there's a supply of soil there. Building is lower-impact if you aren't moving stuff around." Tyre walls will biodegrade in sunlight, but if they are rendered, they will last.

2 To make level crossings and roads

HoldFast Level Crossings Ltd has already reused over 10 million tyres to surface level crossings; it has installed blocks made from tyres in about 3,000 of the UK's 8,000-plus level crossings. Now the company is branching out into highways. The rubber roads, which are being trialled, can be laid along old railway tracks. Each mile of road will use over 350,000 tyres and cost £1.4m per mile, compared to the average road building costs of over £20m per mile. The shock-absorbing properties of rubber are an added safety factor and the roads are durable and easy to maintain.

3 To make stationery

The Remarkable recycling company offers pencil cases, mouse mats, bookmarks, coasters and notebook covers made from old tyres, jauntily labelled "I used to be a car tyre". Priced between £1 and £3, they last for ever. Rubber's flexibility means the notebooks can be rolled up to put in a pocket and unroll without creasing the paper. Remarkable recycles 80 tons of tyres a year in its own factory and, better still, the manufacturing process is fuelled by recycled cooking oils. (; 020-8741 1234)

4 To make shoes

The Blackspot Unswoosher sneaker is made from 100 per cent organic hemp, with a sole made from recovered tyres. It was designed by John Fluevog for the Adbusters Media Foundation, which fights global capitalism. The shoes are made in a family-owned factory in rural Portugal which offers workers excellent conditions. The Unswoosher costs the equivalent of $120 (around £65). (

5 To make sports surfaces and playgrounds

Playground surfaces based on recycled rubber granules are softer than concrete or tarmac. Recycled tyres can also be used to provide a base for athletics tracks, and a rubber base also makes for more realistic artificial grass. The Charles Lawrence Group has been manufacturing synthetic sports and playground surfaces from truck tyres since 1990, and now uses around 450,000 tyres a year. Customers also have the option of including a proportion of recycled Nike trainers, says Marc Blamire of Playtop, the Lawrence play surface brand. "Nike has a corporate social responsibility programme to recycle old trainers and dispose of counterfeits." (; 01636 615 868)

6 To make carpet underlay

Crumbed recycled rubber makes a very durable carpet underlay. Duralay Treadmore, for example, made by Interfloor of Lancashire, is guaranteed for 25 years and contains 90 per cent granulated car tyres. "It is very robust," says Paul Marsh of Interfloor. "Think of the wear and tear a car tyre takes. The underlay is particularly suitable for halls, stairs and landings, which get heavy traffic." Interfloor uses 2.5 million tyres a year. (; 01706 213 131)

7 Mulching the garden

Mulch with granulated tyres instead of bark and you'll never have to replace your chippings. There are other advantages too, says Robert Kellow, whose Re-Scape product has been featured at the Hampton Court Flower Show and is already laid at the Duchy of Cornwall nurseries. "It keeps weeds down, it doesn't rob plants of moisture, pests don't breed in it and it's good for drainage." And for some unknown but welcome reason, dogs and cats don't see it as a handy loo. As well as Re-Scape, Kellow also produces Re-Track, which is used in equestrian schools. Re-Scape mulch costs around £6 for a 25kg bag and around £100 per ton for large-scale projects. (Re-Scape: 01872 240 044)

8 To hold back the sea or provide homes for fish

In 1998, Dr Ken Collins of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, laid down 500 tyres to build an artificial reef in Poole Bay. "There are millions of tyres in artificial reefs round the world, from Israel to the USA, Australia and the Philippines," says Dr Collins. "Tyres are a pain to get rid of because they are so durable and an awkward shape, but that makes them nifty for building artificial reefs." Although tyres contain potentially toxic materials, the underwater environment seems to keep them stable; seaweed grows on them readily and they provide a habitat for fish, lobsters and other marine life. Plus, points out Dr Collins, in areas where illegal trawling is an issue, a huge lump of rubber on the seabed is a persuasive deterrent. In the US, old tyres are used to make "rubber rocks" for building up coastal defences. Dr Collins has been involved with trial schemes in the UK, including one to reinforce the shingle beach at Pevensey in Sussex and another for reinforcing the flood embankment on the river Witham. "On the north-east coast you have the dual problem of rapidly eroding coastlines and huge tyre dumps," he points out. "The role of tyres as a coastal defence is very interesting."

9 As cement kiln fuel

Tyres have a high calorific value, similar to coal, and used in combination they produce a very efficient burn. "Cement kilns like them," says the Tyre Recovery Association's Peter Taylor. Some kilns can take whole tyres, others work on shreds or chips, and kilns can usually replace around 10 per cent of their coal needs with old tyres. By-products are unpleasant and the kilns, which need to be licensed by the Environment Agency, are very closely monitored. The UK burns less of its tyres in cement kilns than many other countries: around 20 per cent, compared to around 60 per cent in Germany. "The practice is widespread in countries that prohibit landfilling, which include Europe, the US and Japan," says Peter Taylor. "The percentage is quite low in this country because we have a long tradition of retreading and a much more diverse recycling scene."

10 To hang from a tree and swing around in

Low-tech, classic and fun: all that's needed is a sturdy branch and a strong rope.

Back on track: second-hand tyres

One efficient way of reusing old tyres is to retread them. Most truck tyres are designed to be retreaded and it has long been routine practice for aircraft tyres. "It is technologically proven and the product is as good as a new tyre," says Peter Taylor. "The tyre is examined to make sure its casing is sound; it may also be X-rayed. It is then buffed to remove old tread, receives a new tread and new walls and is cured." But while 40 per cent of truck tyres are retreaded, only two or three per cent of car tyres live on as tyres, down from 20 per cent a few years ago. It seems consumers just aren't keen on second-hand tyres.

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