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Adding Mileage to Waste Tyres

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Used tyre is the fastest growing waste product on our planet. It may seem incongruous to think that we could find any worthwhile uses of this discarded rubber, much less as a source of livelihood. This waste material can be seen scattered in ever increasing heaps in all urban and also rural areas all over the world. But there appears hope as some clever and eco-minded niche entrepreneurs are turning one of industrialized society’s most ubiquitous and difficult-to-dispose-of waste material into an amazing array of products.

An estimated 1.5 billion tyres are discarded each year worldwide.

Entrepreneur Anu Tandon Vieira established The Retyrement Plan in Mumbai, where workers morph old tyres and other recycled waste materials into sweatherproof outdoor furniture. They make good looking and comfortable furniture out of old scooter, car, bus, truck rubber tyres. Taking recycling a step further, they create twines using cast offs from the garment industry which are then woven into upholstery together with recycled plastic wrapper waste. Additional frames are made from old wood, canes or bamboo.

Initiatives like The Retyrement Plan started by Anu Tandon Vieira are a win-win situation where the locals get employment, the designer benefits and the consumers get a unique product.
Initiatives like The Retyrement Plan started by Anu Tandon Vieira are a win-win situation where the locals get employment, the designer benefits and the consumers get a unique product.

Abundant availability of this waste material is spurring entrepreneurs around the world to explore possibilities of exploiting its commercial value by creating more end use products. This material presents great possibilities as its availability is assured for a long long time. This is one recyclable resource that is not disappearing any time soon. While a large number of tyres are retreaded and reused, there are plenty available for upcycling into great utility objects. There is a thriving cottage industry in Kenya where locals are using the ‘pelts’ of old car tyres to make hand-crafted akala sandals which are sold from $2 to $5 a pair on the streets of Nairobi. Popularly known as ‘thousand milers’, these sandals have been used for decades by the Maasai tribesmen, who roam southern Kenya and northern Tanzania on foot.

Recycled Rubber tyre shoes hand crafted in Africa range from the street version like the ‘thousand milers’ in Kenya to high end versions like the Ethiopia based brand called TooTOOs.
Recycled Rubber tyre shoes hand crafted in Africa range from the street version like the ‘thousand milers’ in Kenya to high end versions like the Ethiopia based brand called TooTOOs.

Improved and trendy versions are also selling as popular upmarket products. TooTOOs womens shoes with outsoles made of hand crafted discarded tire treads sell for around $80 and over online and they take pride in continuing an age old tradition in Ethiopia, of collecting & sorting used tyres which are then hand cut into soles for long lasting, comfortable shoes. In Uncle Sam’s Land, Reverend Faith Fowler of Detroit Threads employs dozens of workers who turn old tyres into $25 flip-flops with ‘plenty of tread life’ at Cass Community Social Services in Detroit. The sandals are designed by students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the College for Creative Studies in Detroit for urban hipsters looking for variety while at the same time ridding the city of Detroit from illegally dumped tyres. The group’s Green industries division consumes around 35,000 used tyres since 2007.

An upcycled Tyre waste bin in Thailand.
An upcycled Tyre waste bin in Thailand.

In Thailand – dustbins, rubbish bins, garbage cans, trash cans, waste of all shapes and styles are being created from tyre discards. Variations of these products are visible all over Thailand and South East Asia. While in the EU, Apokalyps Labotek, a Swedish company, is making durable and stylish flooring out of discarded tyre material by grinding the tyres and mixing it with recycled plastic to create parquet flooring as tough as a thousand-miler sandals in Kenya.

The use of waste trye material in paving roads holds promise for its mass utilization and is already being used extensively in many countries around the world.
The use of waste trye material in paving roads holds promise for its mass utilization and is already being used extensively in many countries around the world.

While some entrepreneurs are commercially exploiting the value of the used tyre material, the tyre as a whole or in shredded form is also being used for coastal protection projects and reinforcing embankments alongside roads. Because of its noise reducing benefits it is also useful on train and tram tracks to reduce noise and vibrations. Among the many other uses such as tyre derived fuel (in cement industry), civil engineering applications and moulded rubber products, it is the use of this material in paving roads that holds promise for its mass utilization. The benefits of using rubber modified asphalts, using, what is called ‘wet process technology’, are being more widely experienced and recognized. Since 1960s, asphalt mixtures produced with RTR-MBs (Recycled Tyre Rubber-Modified Bitumen) have been used in different parts of the world with evidence of enhanced performance of road pavement. Among the countries which have experimented with asphalt mixtures for road pavement are China, Taiwan, Brazil, Sudan, USA, Australia and South Africa. In Europe wet rubberised asphalt has been successfully used in road pavements application since 1981 in Belgium, France, Austria, Netherlands, Poland and Germany, more recently also in Greece and UK. Notably, countries with a higher number of applications of this technology are Portugal, Spain, Italy, Czech Republic and Sweden.

These are but a few of the initiatives being taken worldwide to reuse and recycle the tyre material. In India, one of the ideal ways to recycle waste tyres would be to start a project by involving a local community, artists and design and produce the products in collaboration, like in the case of The Retyrement Plan. This would create a win-win situation where the locals get employment, the designer benefits and the consumers get a unique product. Taken to the large number of villages in India, such projects can shape up a new cottage industry creating a product range from Akala type sandals for mass use to high end use garden furniture and much more. Not only that, new products derived from waste tyres will generate more economic activity than burning them for fuel and causing excessive pollution and emissions from other recycling operations.