Tyre wear – an underestimated source of air pollution that needs to be tackled
3 min read

Tyre wear – an underestimated source of air pollution that needs to be tackled

Around 6.1 million metric tons of tyre dust end up in our atmosphere and waterways annually. Microplastic pollutants have become an omnipresent issue for the environment. ECOS takes a deeper dive into the issue of tyres on the EU level.

Where does the tyre dust come from? Every time a driver brakes, accelerates or turns a corner, car tyres wear down into small particles – polluting air, water and soil. Are these particles toxic? The typical tyre consists of about 19% natural rubber and 24% synthetic rubber, a plastic polymer. The rest is made up of metal and other chemical compounds. As the rubber wears, tyres throw off tiny plastic polymers that become airborne and pollute the air we breathe.

It is not only humans that suffer harmful effects from tyre wear particles. As demonstrated in laboratory tests and real life, microplastic pollution severely impacts marine creatures. Researchers were, for instance, able to establish a link between the death of salmon in urban rivers and high levels of chemicals used in tyres.

What’s in the EU regulation on tyres?

In its Zero Pollution Action Plan, the EU sets a target for a 30% reduction in microplastics released into the environment by 2030. Indeed, tyres with a lower abrasion rate could reduce the release of microplastics. ECOS welcome the ambitious plan but underlines that this objective will be missed without accompanying policies.

In November 2022, the European Commission published the long-awaited proposal to reduce air pollution from vehicles, suggesting tightening exhaust emission standards for cars and vans and foreseeing limits on particles shed from tyres. Having said that, we insist that EU policymakers must support the adoption of an international standard on how to measure tyre abrasion before they suggest an upper limit for tyres.

Can we do better?

The most pressing need for the EU is to set an ambitious upper limit. Why? Because a tyre loses 10-30% of its tread material, often made from plastic polymers and hazardous chemicals polluting the environment.

Tyre abrasion tests show that there are significant differences between tyres. Simply pushing the worse-performing tyres off the market can effectively reduce microplastics from road transport.

However, while an upper limit for tyre abrasion would reduce the leakage of microplastics into the environment, the overall effect on the air quality is not necessarily positive. In fact, tyres producing less coarse particles may produce similar or even higher amounts of fine particles that can become airborne. EU policymakers should ensure that the contribution of tyres to airborne particulate matter is better understood and monitored. Tests should be developed to look more specifically at the performance of tyres in this field.

As we already know, the composition of tyres is also crucial to pollution. Policymakers must boost control over substances used by tyre manufacturers. It’s shocking enough that tyres may be designed to abrade less by using more harmful substances. Certain chemicals used to prevent the degradation of rubber in tyres are known to be ecotoxic, yet they are still used today. The EU should introduce stricter chemical requirements for tyre manufacturers with its Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, so that we do not end up with fewer, but even more toxic microplastics in the environment.

Paving the way to a plastic-free future

Simply banning tyres with high tread abrasion from the EU market has the potential to reduce microplastic emissions. But if the road transport and the trend for larger and heavier vehicles continue to rise, microplastic emissions will inevitably rise despite using greener tyres.

The European Commission should propose concrete measures to ensure that the gains from using greener tyres are not offset by trends leading to increased microplastics from road transport. Further action is necessary to increase and promote public transportation and shift cargo transport from road to rail and water.

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