The never-ending tale of tyres

What happens to used tyres? From tarmac to athletic tracks, this is the exciting second life of tyres

Home life sustainability mobility The never-ending tale of tyres

When a tyre has fulfilled its primary function, which is to take you to your destination safely, and needs to be scrapped, its journey is not over. Like other objects, tyres enter the circular economy cycle, particularly in countries with more advanced tyre management models, first and foremost in the European Union.

First of all, they change their name and become known as ELTs, standing for End-of-Life Tyres. After being removed from the vehicle, they must be collected by specialised organisations (such as Ecopneus, the main consortium in Italy, of which Pirelli is a founding member) and recovered by specialised companies to prevent them ending up in landfills, which is prohibited in Europe. 

Worldwide, an estimated one billion tyres reach the end of their life every year. Globally, about 60% of end-of-life tyres are recovered (Source: WBCSD – “TIP – End of Life Tyres”). Proper ELT management is therefore essential to preserve their value and, for this reason, Pirelli has been actively collaborating with the major national and international reference organisations for many years, promoting the identification and development of solutions to foster the sustainable recovery of ELTs, shared with the various stakeholders and based on a circular economy model.

The never-ending tale of tyres
The never-ending tale of tyres

Roads, football pitches and playgrounds

The most interesting area of reuse of end-of-life tyres is definitely that of material recovery. Through a long and laborious process, ELTs are used to produce secondary raw materials which can be used for many purposes. This is where it starts getting technical and few of us are aware that materials produced with recycled rubber from ELTs are used to make five-a-side football pitches and dance school floors to cushion the impact of studs and shoes. 

Recycled rubber is actually very commonly employed to make surfaces for sports, such as five-a-side or regular football pitches, volleyball courts, basketball courts, tennis courts and surfaces for gymnastics and dancing. In cities, on the other hand, it is used to make soft-landing surfaces for playgrounds, as well as soundproofing panels, footfall sound insulation underlays, waterproofing membranes, vibration-proof and earthquake-proof materials. 

Another use is in the composition of road asphalt which, by adding rubber powder, becomes more sound-efficient, reducing the noise generated by the passage of vehicles by up to 7 decibels, which means halving the sound energy perceived by the human ear, in addition to being more draining, more resistant and more durable to the benefit of road safety. 

The material is also used for kerbs, traffic dividers, speed bumps, lane markers and protection and covering urban furnishings at high risk of impacts, such as signposts, flower boxes, roundabouts and traffic divider flower beds. 

An alternative energy source to fossil fuels

Although there are many possibilities for recycling and almost all ELTs are collected for reuse in the more advanced countries, the technologies for recovering ELTs and transforming them into secondary raw materials are constantly evolving in order to exploit their potentials more and more.

Globally, more than 40% of ELTs are used to produce secondary raw materials, while 15% is used to generate energy in power plants and cement works (source: Tyre Industry Project of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development). By exploiting their high calorific value, which is comparable to that of coal, ELTs are a very efficient energy source and are less carbon-intensive than coal itself, because they emit less CO2 for the same produced energy, mainly as a result of their natural rubber content.