Plastic waste in the oceans and other bodies of water is an environmental problem that is currently being intensively researched. New reports are published nearly every month. Some publications have brought up tires, or particles from tire and road construction materials, as one of the largest sources of microplastics ending up in oceans and other bodies of water.
Tires use rubber rather than plastic. However, plastic and rubber are both polymers. When looking at micro-polymers instead of only plastics, wear particles from tire and road materials are one of the sources of micro-polymers ending up in the ocean.
Many publications include the dust created during tires’ contact with the road – i.e. wear particles from the tire and road surface – under microplastics. Roughly one half of the particles come from the tire and the other half from the road surface. Typically, most of these particles are fairly heavy and land on the roadside, compacting into the soil instead of being carried into a body of water. Some particles, however, are flushed off the road and its surroundings into ditches, sewage systems and, further, into bodies of water. A recent study in the vicinity of the river Seine concluded that some 18% of particles ended up in bodies of water and a further 2% were carried into estuaries (Unice, Weeber, Abramson et al., Characterizing export of land-based microplastics to the estuary, 2018).
When discussing microplastics ending up in the oceans, there are two types of sources: primary and secondary. Primary sources release microplastic particles directly into the oceans, whereas secondary sources release them as a result of the disintegration of larger plastic pieces. According to a report compiled by the EU, the largest group of primary sources consists of the small particles released from the washing waters of synthetic textiles, such as fleece clothing. Wear particles from tire and road materials are the second largest primary source. Together, these primary sources form 15–31% of the microplastics in the oceans, that is, less than one third.
Secondary sources include larger plastic items, such as bottles, bags and fishing nets that are ground into microplastics over time. These are estimated to form 69–81% of the sources of microplastics in the oceans, that is, at least two thirds. (European Parliament: Microplastics: sources, effects and solutions, 2018)
ADDITIONAL RESEARCH IS REQUIRED
Nokian Tyres is are actively following the studies on this topic and participates in external international studies ordered by ETRMA and other organizations. Reliable field and laboratory tests for understanding the nature, routes of entry, and harmful impacts of the particles are required because many of the current estimates are based on mathematical models and calculations.
As a founding member of Finnish Tyre Recycling Ltd, Nokian Tyres is also involved in a research project that aims to produce information regarding possible sources of microplastics in the operating environment and locations of tire recycling. The project will be executed by Apila Group Oy, and it will take place between May 1, 2019 and March 31, 2021.
In the project, sediment and water samples will be collected from the vicinity of roads and water catchment areas during different times of the year. The sampling will be performed by an independent expert. A method developed by Apila Group Oy Ab will be used for identifying and calculating microplastics originating from tires.
Earlier research has noted that, in fresh water areas, particles in sediments may pose a low risk to some aquatic organisms. Additional research is required in order to determine whether the particles that enter bodies of water pose harm to the ecosystem or human health. At present, a study that follows the effects of pulverized rubber from tires on Baltic tellin is under way at Tvärminne research station.
One important aspect of reducing the harmful impacts of driving is how we can prevent particle emissions from traffic or control them by improving the infrastructure. Such areas for improvement could include sewer systems, ditch embankments, or water purification.
Want to read more of tyre and road wear? Here is a link to ETRMA's page on the subject.