HomeNewsTyreBurning or recycling? EU weighs options on used tyres

Burning or recycling? EU weighs options on used tyres

Draft EU rules could see millions of tyres shipped outside of Europe for dumping or incineration, recyclers warn.

More than 50 million waste tyres could end up being indefinitely stockpiled in Europe or exported outside the EU for dumping under new rules currently being discussed in Brussels, a European recycling body has warned.

The European Recycling Industries’ Confederation (EuRIC) accused the European Commission of going against its own circular economy agenda with draft legislation that would essentially prohibit the addition of rubber granules made from recycled tyres to AstroTurf sports pitches.

Under the plans, expected to be tabled next year and which are still subject to change, the EU would reclassify rubber infill as an intentionally added microplastic, essentially prohibiting their use in artificial sports pitches.

Rubber infill has been added to some 32,000 artificial pitches across Europe to replicate the feel of natural turf. Around 80% of artificial sports pitches use rubber infill, a more affordable option than alternatives such as cork or hemp.

However, such pitches could soon be outlawed due to an update of the so-called REACH legislation, which aims to substitute toxic chemicals for safer ones. The ban covers added microplastics for cosmetics, cleaning products, and fertilizers.

But while tackling microplastic pollution is rightly seen as a priority, ruling out the option for end-of-life tyre recycling without developing alternatives for disposal would lead to environmental degradation, argues Alejandro Navazas, a scientific officer with EuRIC.

“The alternatives today, if you rule out one-third of the market for end-of-life tyre recycling, are basically incineration or illegal landfill or exports to places that are going to go for co-incineration,” he told EURACTIV.

“As a recycling industry, you don’t want tyres to go for energy recovery, you want tyres to be recycled,” he said. “Without a consistent policy to support alternatives, you are going to not only end up with tyres being burned but also with companies that are going to shut down. This is really something that we want to prevent,” he added.

Microplastic pollution

According to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), each artificial pitch using rubber infill leaks some 500 kilograms of microplastics each year into the surrounding environment. An ECHA impact assessment estimated that 16 kilotonnes of microplastics are released from artificial turfs per year.

But EuRIC has questioned these figures, arguing that only 20 to 50 kilograms per year end up in the environment.

And if risk management measures are put in place, “then you really bring that to almost zero,” said Navazas.

Under the proposed rules, sports pitches using rubber infill could continue to operate until current supplies of rubber granules are exhausted. Following this, they would be required to convert to a different material that does not rely on infill.

EuRIC’s position is supported by the European Tyre & Rubber Manufacturers’ Association (ETRMA), who similarly warned that such a ban would likely lead to “the return of stockpiles in Europe, massive exports outside of Europe, and increases in the cost to collect, treat and co-incinerate tyres, significantly affecting the goals of the circular economy”.

Whilst maintaining its opposition to the ban, ETRMA also called for the EU to back the development of alternative markets for rubber infill.

Mitigation measures

According to EuRIC, the best option is to prevent the release of rubber infill into the environment in the first place.

Instead of a ban, the trade association advocates the use of mandatory pitch-side mitigation measures.

These include the installation of boot cleaning brushes which can shake loose granules and ensure they remain in the area of the pitch, grates designed to capture microplastics at the entrance and exit of pitches, and the addition of microfilters to rainwater drains on the side of pitches in order to prevent granules from entering the sewer system.

“What we are asking for is the implementation of the risk management measures, to really create a new vision where the fields that install these measures are able to carry on, and those fields which do not have risk management measures in place will not be able to use this infill,” said Navazas.

While such installations and retrofitting represent an extra cost for sports clubs – between €3,000 to €29,000 depending on the countries –, it is around 10-times lower than the cost of shifting to alternative pitch types, EuRIC points out.

NGOs support ban

However, not all organizations are opposed to the mooted ban.

Both Seas at Risk, an NGO dedicated to marine protection, and the Rethink Plastic Alliance, a group advocating a shift away from plastic use, expressed support for the draft REACH measures.

Frédérique Mongodin, senior marine policy officer with Seas At Risk, told EURACTIV that the infill materials covered by the ban usually contain poisonous additives, such as heavy metals and volatile organic compounds.

The chemical complexity of these synthetic materials reduces their biodegradability, making them more likely to persist in the local environment, she said.

“As the number of artificial turf pitches is growing globally, such a big source of microplastic pollution cannot be overlooked,” she added.

Despite the chemical structure of the infill, a study conducted by ECHA’s Risk Assessment Committee found AstroTurf pitches with rubber infill posed no health risk to players, which was in line with the findings of independent studies commissioned by industry. However, if consumed, they are harmful to local wildlife.

While originally scheduled to be published before the end of 2022, the REACH review has been postponed to 2023, following a forceful pushback by the chemicals industry, supported by the center-right EPP group in the European Parliament.

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Sourceeuractiv
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