Trees are important to the environment, but there are only so many of them. So how do we ensure that our tyres will still be made from rubber in the future?
The answer is by using synthetic materials. This blog post looks at how synthetic rubber can impact tree populations and what this means for tree-based tyre production.
Read more to find out about the environmental impacts of synthetic rubber on trees and why it could be a better option for sustainable tyre manufacturing in the future!
WHAT ARE TYRES MADE OF?
The design and materials used in manufacturing tyres vary depending on the manufacturer and the specific product being made. Different tyre manufacturers use various combinations of ingredients and manufacturing processes. This leads to tyres with varying characteristics in terms of performance.
In general, tyres are made of rubbers, construction materials and various chemicals.
- Natural rubber: This component protects tyres against wear and tear.
- Synthetic rubber: Synthetic rubber has heat-resistant properties. Rubber polymers such as butadiene rubber play an essential role in the functionality of each tyre component and the function of the entire tyre, such as traction. Halobutyl rubber, another synthetic rubber, is crucial in maintaining tyre inflation because it makes the tyre’s inner liner impermeable.
- Fillers: Examples of these are silica and carbon black. Adding fillers strengthens rubber, enhancing properties such as tensile strength and resistance to tears and abrasions.
- Antioxidant: It inhibits the oxidation process that occurs during rubber ageing. By preventing the rubber from oxidising, antioxidants keep the rubber from breaking down.
- Textiles: They are commonly used in automobile tyres as body ply or part of the tyre's body.
- Steel: It’s an important component of the beads and belts found in tyres.
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF THE RUBBER INDUSTRY
Annually, it is estimated that the volume of tyres generated is approximately 1 billion. This huge volume is bound to have a significant impact on the environment. Here are some of the environmental issues that face the rubber industry.
It is important to remember that tyres decompose very slowly. Tyres that are not discarded properly contribute to the pollution of the environment by releasing chemicals into the air, the ground and the water. Research has found that tyres produce approximately 550 tons of airborne particles, which contribute to air pollution. In addition, tyres are a common source of plastic pollution in the ocean, accounting for nearly 30% of the overall microplastic waste in our oceans.
A waste tyre can also emit methane gas into the atmosphere when it sits outside in direct sunlight. Meanwhile, chemicals released from the tyre cause groundwater to be contaminated.
Vector-borne diseases thrive in piles of tyres. Used tyres, for instance, are highly likely to be infested with mosquitos. Mosquitoes are attracted to pools of water created in tyres since they lay their eggs in these pools. By storing discarded tyres in piles, one is essentially building a habitat for these bugs.
LOSS OF NATURAL RESOURCES
Among the other hazards associated with tyre manufacturing is the overconsumption or depletion of natural resources. Due to the ever-growing demand for tyre-based transportation, this is a major problem that needs to be addressed. In 2018, the global demand for vehicle tyres reached 1.6 billion units.
There is a very real concern, however, that the natural rubber deposits may be depleted faster than they can be replenished as a result of this rapid growth. Furthermore, this issue of resource allocation becomes even more complicated due to the negative environmental effects of increased tyre production.
IS RUBBER SUSTAINABLE?
Rubber harvesting has potential environmental effects, which makes it difficult to say how sustainable it is. For tyres to be produced from natural rubber, forests and wildlife habitats are destroyed every year during the process of planting the Hevea Brasiliensis. Not to mention, some raw rubber producers may not utilise ethical or sustainable practices when producing their raw rubber. Some suppliers disrupt Southeast Asia and other places where rubber trees grow by engaging in illegal work practices and deforestation. That, unfortunately, can harm our natural resources.
WHERE IS NATURAL RUBBER SOURCED?
The rubber trees in Asia produce most of the rubber used in natural rubber tyres. Countries where rubber trees can be found are India, Indonesia, southern China and Vietnam. The climatic conditions and soils of these countries make them the best places to grow rubber trees. Rubber trees grown in these countries account for 90% of the natural rubber produced in the world.
There has been a steady increase in natural rubber demand in recent decades. Large areas of forests in Asia have often been cleared to plant rubber trees. These forests have been considered among the most threatened on earth. Tigers, elephants and other endangered species call these ecosystems their home.
It’s also crucial to note that it takes up to 7 years for rubber trees to fully mature. Thus, rubber supply and demand need to be balanced carefully to prevent too much sap from being harvested at once.
USING RECYCLED MATERIALS
Many companies are researching various materials suitable for tyre production to promote more sustainable alternatives to natural rubber. Michelin, for instance, is seeking to produce tyres from plastic trash. In the future, this can reduce waste and pollution while also giving consumers more eco-friendly tyre options. Read more here about Recycling Used Tyres.
USING RE-TREADED TYRES
Instead of using natural rubber, a scarce resource, synthetic rubber can also be used. Creating new rubber from recycled rubber consumes less energy than forming new rubber from synthetic materials. The process also results in fewer natural rubber plants being harvested.
With a re-treaded tyre, approximately 80% of the material required to manufacture a new tyre is saved. The environmental impact of these tyres is significantly reduced as a result. Using a rubber re-tread is also more cost-effective in the long run. Re-treading costs roughly 40% less than the price of acquiring a brand-new tyre.