Can you recycle bike tyres and inner tubes?

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted the government to advise against the use of public transport, Brits have been donning their lycra and heading down to the bike shop in large numbers to take up cycling.

Cycling is rightfully seen as one of the greenest forms of transport, but the amount of waste produced from used bike tyres and inner tubes often goes overlooked.

Research from Staffordshire-based tyre recycling scheme Velorim suggests that 30,500,000 tyres and 152,500,000 inner tubes are disposed of at landfill every year, highlighting the need for an environmentally sound way of disposing of bike tyres and inner tubes at their end of life.

Inner tubes and tyres are usually made of butyl rubber, a synthetic material that does not biodegrade. Instead, the rubber breaks down into microplastics, a common polluter of oceans and soil. 

Although the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) Resources and Waste Strategy names tyres as one of the five priority waste streams to be taken into consideration for extended producer responsibility (EPR) regimes, the Strategy does not name bike tyres specifically.

It is hoped that the UK Government’s Environment Bill provides the legal framework to target bike tyres, placing bike tyres on the same legislative platform as automotive tyres, the scrapping of which has been illegal since 2003.

Although bike tyre and inner tube recycling schemes are currently few and far between, a number of fledgling schemes are being set up to tackle the issue.

A new scheme run by Velorim, known as the National Bicycle Tyre Recycling Scheme and set to launch in September, will see participating bike shops, workshops, hire schemes and cycle refurbishment centres all become local collection points for recycling bike tires and tubes.

The scheme will be funded by consumers, with a levy of 20 pence per inner tube and 50 pence per tyre, with funds raised by the levy supporting collection costs incurred by participating stores, and is set to be operational by the end of 2020.

Velorim Chief Executive Dave Hawthorn said: “The introduction of the National Bicycle Tyre Recycling Scheme will mean that cycling can rightly claim to be the most environmentally responsible of sports.”

Velorim plans to convert the recycled inner tubes and bike tyres into part-devulcanized polymers called Velo-ButyleneTM and Velo-SBRTM, respectively. However, the company can only begin the recycling process once a critical mass has been reached.

Richard Lawrence, one of Velorim’s Directors, outlined his vision for the scheme: “The national impact in the UK will be the regular and accepted use of Velorim centres, individual cyclists accepting the idea that there is a small charge associated with recycling and, in realistic terms, removing up to 85 per cent of all scrap bicycle tyres and inner tubes from the standard waste system and, therefore, out of landfill.” 

Bike tyre manufacturer Schwalbe has also set up a new inner tube recycling scheme open to all stockists of Schwalbe and IMPAC tyres, with participating stores also being given the option to act as used inner tube drop-off points for the public allowing people to drop off inner tubes regardless of whether they are a customer there or not.

The rubber from the collected inner tubes is then mixed with new butyl rubber to produce new Schwalbe and IMPAC tyres, meaning the new tyres are made up of 20 per cent recycled rubber, while the valves from the inner tubes are recycled as scrap metal.

Advances are being made to improve the recyclability of bike parts and address the industry’s mounting carbon footprint, as tyre companies gain awareness of issues with sustainability in the industry.

This is reflected in the activities of tyre manufacturer Continental, which recently invested in a new rubber called Taraxagum, a rubber replacement to be used in automotive and bike tyres stemming from the root of dandelion plants.   

Taraxagum makes up around 30 per cent of the tyres stocked by Continental. The root can be cultivated in a range of temperate climates, including those of Europe, the USA and much of Russia.

Though the bike tyre sector has a long way to go – hopefully on recyclable tyres – in terms of making tyre recycling the norm, both the launch of Velorim’s national recycling scheme and the initiatives of other tyre companies offer much promise for a green, lycra-clad future.

Find information on the launch of the tyre recycling scheme, set for 1 September, on Velorim’s website.