Old tyres follow the general EU hierarchy for waste, where the least favoured option is disposal, followed by energy recovery. More preferable is recycling, reusing and reducing the waste and the best option is prevention. However, statistics show that the reality of old tyres doesn’t follow the preferred solution. In the EU, we are currently using approximately 50 % of the collected old tyres as a substitution to other materials in roads, football fields and top layers of landfills; incinerating or disposing the other 50 %. Putting recycled rubber from tyres to use in other products instead of producing new rubber has proven to be 45 times more carbon-efficient. Thus, a widely-used method for recycling the rubber from the more than 3 million old tyres that are generated in the EU every year would not only give a more sustainable management of rubber, it would also have a positive impact on the climate.
Technologically, the solution is already here: An ecological polymer, EcoRub, made from old tyres and plastic. Normally, 95 % of the material in the polymer is recycled, and the polymer itself can be recycled and reused multiple times. The product development has been on-going since 1995 and the polymer is ready for commercial introduction. Due to problems reaching the market, the producers have now received support to run a new project through the EU funding scheme CIP programme , a public grant funding for demonstration programme. The Advanced pre-Commercialization of Eco rubber material (ACE) is set to dismantle some key barriers in the pre-commercialisation phase. The 3-year project that started in 2010 is focusing on disseminating product information and promoting the polymer to new markets, mainly the construction and the automotive market.
The coordinating, rubber-producing company in Sweden is in close cooperation with three other project partners; A rubber-powder producing company in Greece, a cluster of vehicles sub-suppliers in Slovenia and a German research institute mainly focusing on building material.
The polymer is generated through a patented, damage-reducing technique for reusing old tyres; the manufacturing process begins with cutting the tyre into smaller pieces and separating the rubber from steel and fabric. The following steps include grinding the rubber into a powder and mixing it with plastic, letting a patented molecule strengthen the bond between the two materials through a chemical reaction. The so-created polymer has the characteristics of thermoplastics, melting when heated and hardening when cooled. Rubber, on the other hand, will ignite when heated. The last part of the process is extruding the produced material into sheets or granulates that can be used in a number of applications such as rubber carpets or rubber seals.
So far, the now-running project has managed to establish a laboratory for small-scale production of the hybrid test-material, and the dissemination of information at conferences and fairs has been successful. There have also been successful full-scale production trials and the coordinating company has started sales within some areas. Thus, the product has a Technology Readiness Level of 9 on the TRL scale. At the moment, a wide spectrum of projects is under development within the consortium, e.g. to establish the product on the markets for wet room products and for rubber and plastic details in heavy vehicles. As the demand for the polymer is growing among customers, the number one priority is now to set up a plant for large-scale production.