How do Seabins fit into the fight against tire pollution?

Our Vancouver Plastic Cleanup Initiative is directly reducing the number of microplastics making their way into the Pacific. If you haven't heard about the project, be sure to check out the link above, or for another blog, check out, Why Seabins Mean the World to the Ocean!

One of the many things that we have started to collect in our trash skimmers is, in fact, tires. Not whole tires, although there's lots of those in the ocean too. We're talking about insanely small pieces of tires that have rubbed off on the roadway and made their way to the water.

Because our Seabins are located in an area of high traffic and placed quite close to roadways, they function as a last line of defence before pollution gets out into the ocean. Although the dust gunks up the bins, keeping it out of the sea and aquatic animals' guts is well worth the extra maintenance. 

If you want to see how tire dust impacts the environment with your own eyes, come out for a waste characterization session. They run every two weeks, and we'd love to have you out!

Why we're talking about tires

Tires are an item that has become ingrained in virtually every part of the planet to the point that we sacrifice forests to produce them. They allow us to get from point A to point B in a comfortable, safe, and speedy way. 

Believe it or not, tires today are made differently than they were before the 19th century. Because of growing consumer demand, there simply wasn't enough natural rubber to go around if we were only extracting it from rubber trees. So, to fix that problem, we created a synthetic rubber that today allows us to make tires from much, much less natural rubber. This process still leads to deforestation, however. Considering that creating one car tire requires about 7 gallons of oil or 28 gallons per set, losing our forests isn't the only compromise we are making for a smooth ride.

The Unseen Threat

You might be thinking that sounds pretty bad, but what does this have to do with the health of our waters? Well, tires are impacting our rivers, streams, oceans, glaciers, and more—and these consequences are not even related to tire production itself.

Researchers have found that a chemical byproduct called 6PPD-Quinone found in tires is highly lethal to Coho Salmon. Worse still, scientists believe that other species may be affected by it as well.

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Juvenile fish in False Creek, BC

6PPD is a preservative that is essential to making tires. Without this chemical or an equivalent, the rubber would end up cracking and breaking down at a much faster rate. It's designed to protect tires from ground-level ozone, which reacts with the preservative and produces the chemical compound 6PPD-Quinone, which is responsible for the Salmon deaths. This toxin is readily available to be absorbed by any organism unlucky enough to be in its proximity. With roughly 3.1 billion tires produced every year, you can imagine how much of an impact this chemical could have and is already having.

There are two main solutions to this problem that researchers are pursuing. The first is to find an eco-friendly alternative to 6PPD so that tires keep their longevity without leaching out toxins. The second is to install infrastructure capable of treating the runoff before it reaches our waterways, but this is generally considered impractical considering the costs.

Tire Recycling 

Are you ready for some good news? One bright side is that BC has launched the first-ever tire recycling program in North America, the Financial Incentives for Recycling Scrap Tires. Since its inauguration, many provinces and states have followed suit, and now, almost thirty years later, we have come a long way in the efficiency of the program. 

In Canada, in 2019 (the latest available data year), over 90 percent of the tires collected were recycled. The question is: How much danger do our recycled products pose to the environment around them? Although fuel is one of the more well-known uses of recycled tires, they are also used as mulch substitutes in playgrounds, artificial turf, and to repair roads. This certainly gets them back in use, but it also means that they likely have the potential to continue leaching toxic chemicals.

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A playground with a recycled rubber ground cover by Loegunn Lai

Tire and Road Wear Particles

Apart from the issue of toxins, tires are also one of the worst offenders when it comes to microplastics in the ocean. When you drive down the road, you inherently wear down your car’s tires. The car's weight increases the friction between the tires and the road, causing some of the tire to be lost, much in the same way an eraser wears down over time. It is estimated that a set of passenger or light truck tires loses almost two and a half pounds of their mass during their lifespan.

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A large vehicle carrying Christmas trees by Jan Antonin Kolar

Microplastics are one of the most critical issues in the battle to combat plastic pollution, as well as in reducing the effects of climate change. They pose a significant threat to our wildlife, having been linked to limiting the reproductive and growth capacities in fish, genetically altering shellfish, and fatally clogging the guts and gills of small crustaceans. 

More than 75 percent of these harmful microplastics come from tires.

Now, if that shocks you, you aren't the only one. When most of us think of plastic pollution, we think of the big pieces that we can see, especially in a news cycle that is doing its best to highlight the dangers of single-use plastics.  Although they are small, microplastics are a big part of the picture. Their effects on the environment are complex, making it difficult to evaluate the effects of the many different forms they can take. This only makes it more vital to find meaningful ways to mitigate their effects on water and wildlife.

Much in the same way that we need more research to better understand how 6PPD-Quinone  interacts with the environment in our recycled products, we need to know how microplastics such as tire dust are impacting our environment to deal with their presence correctly. 

Right now, the tire industry as a whole is not confirming the proposed effects of 6PPD-Quinone  or tire particulates as being harmful to people or the environment. 

One quick and easy thing you can do to reduce your own contribution to this issue is to make sure your tires are properly inflated. Driving with underinflated tires is not only a safety hazard, but it also increases the amount they wear down during the drive.

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One of the Granville Island trash skimmers collecting plastic pollution and other debris

Sources
  1. https://www.env.gov.bc.ca/soe/indicators/sustainability/tire-recycling.html
  2. https://www.catraonline.ca/catra/provincial-data
  3. https://ecogreenequipment.com/7-byproducts-of-tire-recycling/
  4. https://www.washington.edu/news/2020/12/03/tire-related-chemical-largely-responsible-for-adult-coho-salmon-deaths-in-urban-streams/
  5. https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.abd6951
  6. https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/killer-tire-chemical-threatening-canadian-salmon
  7. https://www.iucn.org/news/secretariat/201702/invisible-plastic-particles-textiles-and-tyres-major-source-ocean-pollution-%E2%80%93-iucn-study
  8. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/tires-unseen-plastic-polluter?
  9. https://www.wbcsd.org/Sector-Projects/Tire-Industry-Project
  10. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/plastic-planet-animals-wildlife-impact-waste-pollution?
  11. https://www.newsweek.com/new-eco-friendly-renewable-tires-stretch-boundaries-rubber-production-564165
  12. https://watershedsentinel.ca/articles/when-the-rubber-hits-the-road-it-doesnt-disappear/
  13. https://tracanada.ca/environment/
  14. https://sustainability.ustires.org/environment/#vision-5/1
  15. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11462066
  16. Header Photo by Imthaz Ahamed on Unsplash
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