Study: Up to one third of all microplastics released into UK waters come from tyre wear particles

New analysis calculates that, by 2030, UK tyre wear will have accounted for up to 350,000 tonnes of ocean microplastic and over 850,000 tonnes by 2050.

SUEZ recycling and recovery UK (SUEZ) has today (06 April 2021) launched The Insight Report: 2030, Invisible Ocean Pollutants from our Road, in partnership with report authors SOENECS, Social, Environmental & Economics Solutions Ltd.

The report reveals the potential scale of tyre wear particles on UK roads and within ocean microplastics globally, and it sets out recommendations on how to address the challenge by 2030.

SUEZ analysis calculates that by 2030 UK tyre wear will have accounted for up to 350,000 tonnes of oceans microplastic by 2030 and over 850,000 tonnes by 2050.

That 63,000 tonnes per year of total UK tyre wear particles could worsen in the near term, it says, due to a trend in people move back to personal car usage and away from public transport for work and leisure commuting.

This could be exacerbated, according to the study, by the transition to electric cars, with braking patterns worsening tyre wear.

It suggests that only a move to plant-based plastics and away from oil-based plastics within tyre composites will ‘lessen the impact’ and manufacturers are already looking at dandelion or rice husk derived plastics to reinforce rubber tyres.

A five-point plan has been drawn which looks at ‘innovation in tyre making’ – reducing the oil-based plastic component and to focus on plant-based plastics, and to introduce ‘polluter pay principles’ to tyre manufacturing – adding them into new extended producer responsibility schemes, making it easier to recycle used tyres and prevent their dumping, the companies say.

Meeting the challenge

The 63,000 tonnes per year calculation is based on original analysis and evaluation of datasets, comparisons with physical used tyres that pass through SUEZ operations and evaluation of all the materials passing through SUEZ waste and water streams that it processes.

The analysis results from the evaluation of practical experience of materials handled on ‘the waste and recycling floor’ and via its infrastructure and measured against projections from SUEZ which calculates it now provides some form of waste and recycling service to 30% of UK households.

SOENECS and SUEZ believe the 63,000 tonnage is ‘conservative’. The concern is that total tonnage and therefore a percentage of all microplastics from tyre wear could well go above 34% if the trend in lockdown usage continues – namely higher personal car usage over public transport.

Meeting the challenge of reducing tyre wear particles is the next piece in the microplastic pollution puzzle. Constructive change is already underway to address those other better-known sources of microplastics, which gives us all confidence for tackling microplastics from tyre wear particles by 2030

That total tonnage of tyre wear could be ‘magnified’ far more if the shift back to the car with fewer passengers, away from buses tubes and trains, continues when longer journeys resume (commuting and leisure travel) despite the ‘at home’ hybrid working patterns, given private car usage produces more tyre wear per capita. A switch to electric cars ‘exacerbates’ that problem given higher braking patterns, it says.

John Scanlon, Chief Executive Officer for SUEZ recycling and recovery UK said: “Understanding how tyre wear particles contribute to microplastics in our built environment is the first step in the journey to reducing microplastics in our natural environment and the global food chain.

“Meeting the challenge of reducing tyre wear particles is the next piece in the microplastic pollution puzzle. Constructive change is already underway to address those other better-known sources of microplastics, which gives us all confidence for tackling microplastics from tyre wear particles by 2030.

“Extended producer responsibility schemes, deposit return systems, and other imminent policy changes will transform our usage of plastic bottles, while a ban of the use of microbeads in cosmetics has been introduced, and cross sector collaboration is underway to reduce plastic microfibre shedding from synthetic clothing.

“The road we must all drive along for the next decade to meet our 2050 carbon neutral target must be one that at the same time reduces ocean microplastic pollution, rather than increasing it with every press on the car brakes – the cause of this invisible pollutant.”

Report highlights include:

  • Every car tyre weighs about 1 kg less when scrapped than when made, a truck tyre about 8 kg less.
  • UK tyre wear produces approximately 63,000 tonnes of tyre wear particles per year.
  • Tyre wear particles could account for 28-34% of all microplastics released to UK surface waters:
  • Which could amount to 1.03 million tonnes of oceans microplastic including 350,200 tonnes tyre wear particles by 2030
  • Which could ultimately amount to over 2.5 million tonnes of ocean microplastics including 850,000 tonnes tyre wear particles by 2050.

Electric vehicles

The current design of electric vehicles can increase tyre wear and all cars currently rely on largely unchanged plastic composite rubber tyres, resulting in increased tyre dust pollution and ultimately higher levels globally of ocean microplastics.

The Insight Report: 2030 identifies the five core factors that determine how we may be able to mitigate our invisible pollution problem of the present, as being: the design of tyres, cars, roads and their water management, driving skills and training; and the ability to improve interception of tyre wear particles at source.

In order to reduce overall tonnages of tyre wear particles and proportions that result in microplastics entering the ocean, SUEZ and SOENECS recommend wholescale changes by 2030 which will involve:

  • Introducing pollution capture technologies on vehicles, roads, sewers, storm and other drainage
  • Collaborating with local authorities, real estate developers, industry and governments to adjust drainage and other urban infrastructure in mitigating the invisible pollution problem.
  • Modelling the impact of increased street sweeping, processing and separation, to intercept more tyre wear particles
  • Collaborating with start-ups, manufacturers, organisations and researchers to explore novel opportunities for tyre wear particle prevention, including a shift in tyre composition, engineering and design
  • Creating a guide for the resources and waste management sector to assist with understanding how the purchase of electric vehicles over the next decade may impact tyre wear particle pollution
  • Preparing a business case for including tyres in extended producer responsibility schemes

Dr David Greenfield, Managing Director of SOENECS Ltd, said: “Road vehicle designs of today must be fit for an electrified road network of tomorrow that can wean us off fossil fuels but will have also reduced microplastics from tyre dust.

“To engineer change and reduce microplastics pollution from tyres we can’t simply rely on changes to individuals’ driving habits, we must collaborate across the value chain of production and consumption in tandem with policy makers and technology innovators, all with end of life in mind to create a truly circular economy.

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