By Peter R Taylor

Europe has been witnessing a seismic shift in tyre production with a huge relocation of capacity from the West to the East, especially in car tyres. The reasons: Rising car owner-ship in Eastern Europe, lower wages, generous investment grants etc.

Europe has been witnessing a seismic shift in tyre production with a huge relocation of capacity from the West to the East, especially in car tyres. The reasons: Rising car owner-ship in Eastern Europe, lower wages, generous investment grants etc.

Data recently published by Astutus Research indicates just how far tyre production has moved eastward and, for once, I am not talking about China. No, there has been a seismic shift within Europe itself with a huge relocation of capacity from the West to the East, especially in car tyres.

The explanations are simple — rising car owner-ship in Eastern Europe, lower wages and often generous investment grants which only serve to drive plant closures at the opposite end of the Continent.
Moreover, these new plants in Europe’s east are big for the simple reason they are designed to churn out the popular sizes at the lowest cost. In comparison, most of the remaining plants in Western Europe are smaller and have much higher costs but are more specialised which is the main reason for their survival ….. for now.
Car & light truck tyre capacity by rankings-by country

As for the brand names, there are several new ones manufacturing on European territory compared to a few short years ago, including total newcomers like Sumitomo and now Linglong and Yokohama. Will more follow? Hard to say.
Europe’s car tyre makers Apollo, Bridgestone, Continental, Cooper, Cordiant, Goodyear, Hankook, Linglong*, Michelin, Nexen, Nokian, Pirelli, Tatneft, Yokohama.

ELT’s & Extened Producer Responsibility

It started with just ‘Producer Responsibility’, a somewhat nebulous concept which ordained that ‘producers’ should be responsible for the waste they generated. We are talking about end-of-life-tyres (ELT’s), of course.
The term ‘producer’ was never fully defined, however, and was variously interpreted to encompass manufacturers, retailers, consumers and recyclers either singly or collectively. However, the exact nature of this responsibility was little explored. Collect and get rid of? Actively promote recycling outcomes? Or just let the market get on with it?

In Europe, the EU Landfill Directive requires that virtually all ELT’s are reused, recycled etc., something we have achieved over the years but not always in the best possible ways. The European Commission, together with various national governments, seems to recognise this and wants more from us. But what exactly?

Their answer would seem to be ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’, basic PR but with more statutory ‘obligations’, some European states are halfway there already with collection and disposal schemes often managed by the major new tyre producers. But they only work imperfectly, the tyre recycling bucket still has a lot of holes in it and the reasons are complex. Governments, of course, don’t much welcome complexity preferring neat ‘catch all’ solutions; but our situation does not much lend itself to that.

For one thing, governments themselves have a responsibility to enforce their own regulations; but as most of us would agree, this does not happen as much as it should. Often, these very regulations, though no doubt well-meaning, are little fit for purpose. The latest thinking is to re-invent or even mandate the eco-fee, an up-front charge on manufacturers and importers that would magically cover every product sold into the market and assure its subsequent recycling. The term ‘hope over expectation’ springs to mind. Tyres as a product are ubiquitous; there is widespread brand proliferation and they move easily across borders.

In practice, there are two issues here we often mistakenly conflate — the first is our used tyre collection infrastructure and the other is what we actually do with them after that; recycling itself. One thing I have learnt over too many years is that there is no one best approach to the former or the latter, although it is best as a celebrated economist once advised, don’t mess with the market. The eco-fee approach may do just that.

ELT collection

Dealing with the collections issue first. Countries may be large or small, densely or lightly populated or geographically challenged; so it would be wrong to espouse any single approach. The choice will be governed by individual realities. Where possible, however, it would be wise to avoid a ‘command and control’ approach of the sort adopted in some places. Why? Because there is a tendency for the best organised or dominant market players to assume control at the expense of others. With this can come temptations like expediency and oligopolistic practices which in themselves work against broader market development. To properly succeed, it is essential that every market player is obligated and fully engaged. That means not just manufacturers but all producers of waste including our retailers, vehicle dismantlers, re-processors and consumers. The many, not just the few!

ELT reprocessing

Whereas the collection of ELT is a logistical challenge, what then becomes of them requires innovation and market development, their use for just a fuel is acceptable for now but not ideal. Why? For the simple and most obvious reason that there is simply too much valuable resource locked away inside a tyre for it just to be consumed in this way. What is more, our ambitions for the Circular Economy demand it of us.

How we get there is the challenge and again there is no easy way forward. Tyre recycling is still a nascent industry where entrepreneurship needs to be encouraged. Government has an important role here, regulation needs to be proportionate and supportive and any adverse factors which undermine the domestic development of new reprocessing initiatives need to be recognised and addressed. Eco-fees have little role in any of this because they are unlikely to be effective in driving outcomes – and long-term sustainable outcomes
have to be our goal, not short-term subsidy the future for tyre recycling is far from gloomy. What it does need though is a level playing field.

(Peter R Taylor, OBE, Secretary General, Tyre Recovery Association, is also former Director, Imported Tyre Manufacturers Association (ITMA), London)