In the middle of September this year, French authorities hired specially equipped boats with lifting gear to haul to the surface thousands of old tyres from artificial reefs. Researchers had discovered that the tyres were leaking toxic chemicals, including heavy metals, into the sea. This tyre reef sanctuary, located 500 metres from the Mediterranean coastline between the towns of Cannes and Antibes in the southeast corner of France, was created in the 1980s by dumping 25,000 car tyres into the sea after local fishermen and French authorities envisioned a protected area where fishing was banned and corals and marine life could populate the tyres, thereby rejuvenating the marine life in this stretch of the Mediterranean.
With increasing focus on the harmful effects tyres can have on the environment and the ocean, policymakers and tyre companies are becoming concerned. In addition to the toxicity from tyres submerged in water as stabilisers in breakwaters or as structures in artificial reefs, tyre waste transmitted through the air from vehicles on roads is also one of the issues being addressed by the European Commission in a White Paper drafted in January 2018 stating their strategy in dealing with plastics in a circular economy. Besides acknowledging that more research is needed to comprehend where microplastics come from and how they affect the environment and human health, the commission is looking into ways to cut down on microplastics that come from tyres. One of the ways they intend to do this is by looking into setting an EU-wide standard for the abrasion rate of tyres through establishing a common testing method along with a requirement for producers to inform consumers.
HOW TYRES GET INTO THE SEA
A 2017 scientific study led by PieterJan Kole of the Open University of The Netherlands* estimated that about 10 percent of the microscopic pieces of plastic in the ocean are from tyres as they wear down. What most people question – or are ignorant about – is how much tyre waste is in the environment, how much of it ends up in the sea, if and how it gets into the food chain, and what danger it poses.
According to the study on the wear and tear of tyres by Kole et al., every car tyre weighs about one kilogram less when it is scrapped compared to when it was first bought. The missing kilogram of tyre material is eviscerated into the environment through wear and tear from driving and braking. According to a report by Eunomia, 500,000# tons of tyre waste from 290 millions cars in Europe escape into the environment through the air, scattered on streets and highways, or swept into rivers and the sea.
The tyre reef being dismantled in France this September was one of five experimental tyre reefs deployed in the 1980s on the French coasts of Palavas-les-Flots, Langrune-sur-Mer, Arca-chon-sur-Mer, Port-la-Novelle and Golfe-Juan, and they are still in place today. After a study done in 2005 by researchers at the University of Nice revealed that the toxic chemical leak from the tyres are a threat to marine and human life, an initial removal operation was conducted in 2015 at the Golfe-Juan site to remove 2,500 tyres as proof that the tyres could be removed safely. Divers and boat crews were scheduled to remove 10,000 tyres in October 2018, while the remaining 12,500 tyres will be removed in the second quarter of 2019. The removed tyres will be sent to recycling centres in Nice, where they will be broken up into granules and used in construction projects. The removal of the tyres is said to cost more than one million Euros and will be paid for by the French authorities as well as the manufacturer of the tyres, French tyre giant Michelin.
France, however, is by no means the only country that has created artificial reefs from tyres. Although there are an estimated 90,000 cubic metres of artificial tyre reefs in France, there are around 20 million cubic metres offshore in Japan. Scientists estimate that there are around 200 artificial tyre reefs around the world with the bulk of them in the waters off the United States, Japan, Malaysia and Israel. Around two million tyres were sunk off the coast of Florida in 1972 to create artificial reefs to promote marine life.
*Wear and Tear of Tyres: A Stealthy Source of Microplastics in the Environment by Pieter Jan Kole, Ansje J. Löhr, Frank G.A.J. Van Belleghem and Ad M.J. Ragas. Published online Oct 20, 2017
#Annex of Eunomia draft report v4 “Investigating Options for Reducing Releases in the Aquatic Environment of Microplastics” available at http://www.eunomia.co.uk/reports-tools/investigating-options-for-reducing-releases-in-the-aquatic-environment-of-microplastics-emitted-by-products/