Europe’s major tyre makers have been at it again! Last March, they tested a basket of imported tyre brands and found a number that failed to meet new REACH requirements on clean-oil (PAH) content. This resulted in protests from many of the brands named by Europe’s tyre manufacturers’ lobby known as the ETRMA. For one thing, it was far from clear whether those non-compliant tyres had been brought into the EU through normal distribution channels or whether they had arrived here on the parallel or ‘Grey’ import market, a phenomena affecting very many tyre brands. REACH rules on PAH content do not apply outside of Europe.
Indefatigable, the ETRMA re-released this October the results of yet more tests in an exercise involving the sampling of 94 tyres at a cost said to be around 160,000 euros. Eight brands or 10% of the sample – all but one made in China emerged ‘guilty’ from this round of testing and the ETRMA was quick to urge the EU authorities to take effective action against ‘unscrupulous’ producers. However, just as in the previous exercise, there was no saying how this small clutch of brands representing closer to 0.1% of the market than the 10% implied got into the European markets in the first place. Indeed, as the ETRMA had seemingly failed to spot, two of the little known brands slated had actually been produced in the factory majority-owned by one of its own members. Not surprisingly this company quickly reacted with the obvious and perfectly legitimate defence that these two brands were not intended for sale within the EU and had been imported unofficially!
What the Chinese and other non-European tyre manufacturers will make of this latest situation is not so difficult to imagine.
The jury is still out on this one, but with the deadline for tyre labelling getting ever nearer, views are crystallising. By November 2012, it will be an offence to sell a new car or truck tyre without a label showing how quiet (or noisy) it is as well as its wet road and rolling resistance (economy) performance. There are various schools of thought. The major car tyre brands may well pitch for excellence in a particular product attribute, Michelin, for example, has already shown a penchant for energy saving. Others may opt for wet grip or just being the best all-rounder. Noise or the lack of it may come last in this pecking order.
Getting the message across may also not be easy. It is unclear how well prepared some small traders will be. Signs are that private on-line IT suppliers rather than the industry as a whole will be the first to come forward with on-line catalogues of pictograms covering the hundreds of tyre brands and ranges in our market place – at a price, of course.
Era of China-made?
Europe’s tyre market in this the 21 century reflects what one might term a third era of market development. To explain this better, let us first take a quite large step backwards in time.
The very late 19th century and particularly the first half of the 20th century saw the rise of dominant national brands: Michelin in France, Pirelli in Italy, Dunlop in Britain and, of course, the Firestone/Goodyear twins in Akron, the US. There were many others, of course; but most eventually fell into the clutches of these market leaders driven as they were by the desire to dominate – especially on their own home ground.
One consequence of this was that the brands developed cultures that were overly concentrated in their own national comfort zones which sometimes give rise to problems in facing the threats and opportunities of the wider world. Today, still deeply rooted in their national origins, the boundaries of Europe have assumed a greater importance than I believe they should.
Of course, Europe’s indigenous flagship brands have expanded far beyond their own shores and successfully so in most cases; yet at home in Europe, they have an ever lessening impact on consumer consciousness. This situation is most evident in some of the smaller countries of the Union as well as in Britain whose own national champion Dunlop largely succumbed to competitive pressures several decades ago. In Britain today, half of all replacement car tyre sales are accounted for by brands with no manufacturing presence in Europe itself. True, those big names still rule important aspects of the market, but they no longer dominate it in the way they once had done and so we would seem to have reached the end of what might be seen as a second phase of development.
The era unfolding before us now will bring with it profound changes in the composition of the tyre market and an array of ambitious new names. This will be a generational change. Within ten years, any list of the world’s top ten or fifteen tyre makers will look profoundly different from how it is today. Their products will be predominantly China-made!
How have they done it? Most of these new market players have been volume not brand-led and have sold their wares under a variety of often unremarkable brand names which is one reason why their rise has been noticed. For them, out and out growth has been the overriding ambition, but brand development must be next on their agendas.
Europe to grow own rubber
With natural rubber prices reaching record highs in the past year, the EU is again looking at self-sufficiency options.
There are two candidates for alternative NR production -- that old favourite guayule and a rather attractive little yellow-flowering dandelion from Kazakhstan. Guayule, first investigated as an NR alternative by the Americans during World War II, is a spiky desert plant and has proven potential. Its Kazakhstan competitor, the ‘Russian’ dandelion has been less researched and its commercialisation will require considerable re-breeding.
All very interesting, but I feel it is unlikely we will see much natural rubber being produced north of the Mediterranean just yet!
Fight for fuel
When oil prices rose, the price of coal followed and all other energy costs spiralled upward. For tyre recycling, this situation is bringing with it some unintended consequences.
There are many end-uses for tyre-derived materials such as granulate, crumb and powders; all are valuable feed stock for such products as flooring materials, belting, play surfaces, carpet underlay, rubberised asphalt and the like. Rubber tyre chip is also widely used as a co-fuel with coal in cement and lime kilns as this ‘tyre-derived fuel’ (TDF) has an energy co-efficient similar to that of coal.
Tyre reprocessing carries with it an inherent cost disadvantage when compared to simple chipping for use as TDF. This higher on-cost for more highly re-processed materials has traditionally been met by a ‘gate fee’ charged by re-processors to the professional tyre collectors. The kilns which use tyre chip fuel have largely gone along with this and have also levied gate charges because the market has allowed them to do so. Now things are changing.
With the inexorable rise in energy costs, the use as well as the price of TDF is accelerating fast all around the globe and the product is in demand as never before. As a result, the more traditional forms of tyre recycling which depend on a ‘gate fee’ are suffering. Does this matter? Well yes, it does. If and when the demand for TDF falls back, that traditional processing capacity may no longer be there to take up the slack.