Tyre particles are contaminating our rivers and oceans

A major new study reveals vehicle tyres are a significant source of microplastics found in the marine environment.

Although we loosely call them ‘rubber’, vehicle tyres are actually made from a complex blend of a lot of mostly synthetic materials and chemicals, including different types of plastic.

New UK government-funded research is one of the first worldwide to identify tyre particles as a major and additional – and previously unrecorded – source of microplastics.

It demonstrated how tyre particles can be transported directly to the ocean through the atmosphere, or carried by rainwater into rivers and sewers, where they can pass through the water treatment process.

It is hoped the study will improve scientific understanding of how tiny particles from tyres, synthetic fibres from clothing and maritime gear also enter the ocean.

Reducing plastic pollution in the ocean is one of the greatest environmental challenges that we face. This study will help us face that challenge by identifying areas for future research, such as changes to roadside drainage and textile design.

Rebecca Pow, UK Domestic Marine Minister

There are still many unknowns, and compared to other forms of microplastics we know relatively little about tyre wear particles.

The research advances understanding of ways in which microplastics enter the marine environment

The report’s findings also highlight some of the best places for intervention; for example, that fitting filters to washing machines could be less effective than changing fabric designs to reduce fibre loss, with another study at the University having recently shown that normal wear and tear when wearing clothes is just as significant a source of microplastic pollution as release from laundering.

This study gives us a real insight into the importance of tyre wear as a source of microplastics. However there are still many unknowns, and compared to other forms of microplastics we know relatively little about tyre wear particles. So it is important to continue to take steps to reduce emissions of better understood sources like fibres from textiles and the fragmentation of larger items.

Professor Richard Thompson OBE

Following the British Government’s ban on rinse off microbeads (one of the toughest in the world) the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) funded the research, led by the University of Plymouth.

When the rubber hits the road

Modern tyres include a variety of synthetic polymers, with names like styrene butadiene and halobutyl rubber, and polyester cord fibres to strengthen the internal structure. In short, tyres are essentially yet more big chunks of plastic. And when they break down they behave and persist like other plastics in the environment.

Once in the ocean, tyre particles absorb and concentrate toxic pollutants from seawater, like other microplastics do. This makes them even more poisonous to animals that mistake them for food or absorb them through their gills or skin.

What can I do to reduce tyre pollution?

Choose to walk, cycle or take public transport

This is the most preferable option, wherever possible. Shared vehicle journeys rather than single-occupancy cars would be the next best thing. There are plenty of car-sharing schemes you can find out about online.

Bear in mind too that even electric cars, which are otherwise better for the environment, still have the same kind of synthetic rubber tyres as conventional cars, so still cause microplastic pollution.

When you drive, go gently

When a journey by private car is unavoidable, there are several small things that drivers can do to reduce tyre wear and therefore microplastic shedding.

These generally coincide with what’s widely considered eco-driving. For example:

  • Drive smoothly and avoid aggressive manoeuvring and abrupt cornering
  • Accelerate gently, and don’t over-brake unless you have to
  • Drive with the correct tyre pressure
  • Remove unnecessary weight from the vehicle
  • Choose to drive smaller, lower-weight vehicles
  • Fitting only high-quality tyres will also help to reduce excessive tyre wear

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