Velorim is hoping to create a sustainable alternative for recycling tyres and inner tubes through its National Bicycle Tyre Recycling Scheme. Daniel Blackham speaks to directors Richard Lawrence and Russ Taylor
This piece first appeared in the September edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
Tyres and inner tubes are one of the cycling industry’s most common service items. Whether that’s due to wear and tear, punctures, or a complete blowout, the trade gets through its fair share of rubber.
But what happens to that rubber at the end of its life? An estimated 9,300 tonnes of tyres and tubes end up in landfill each year, each taking around 80 years to decompose. Once broken down, toxins and carcinogens can leach into the water table.
The most common alternative to landfill is incineration for energy. However this comes with its own pitfalls. Although an energy rich material, for every kilogram of rubber burned, it produces nearly three kilos of carbon dioxide. Add into this other chemical byproducts like sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide, and it’s not as sustainable an alternative as first appears.
Velorim and its National Bicycle Tyre Recycling Scheme is hoping to change that.
I recently caught up with Velorim directors Richard Lawrence and Russ Taylor to learn about the challenges and successes of the scheme, and what the future holds.
Velorim was founded off the back of lived experience for both Lawrence and Taylor.
“Russ and I were trustees of a bicycle recycling charity,” explained Lawrence.
“You get donated an old bike because somebody just wants to get rid of it, [once broken down] we end up with a pile of steel, aluminium, plastic and rubber. The first three are very easily recycled. But we found nobody who would recycle tyres and tubes.”
The pair were offered disposal services by companies that handled car tyres at a charge of £2 a tyre, but found that most of their waste would end up in a skip and eventually find their way to landfill.
“We wanted to find out why,” said Lawrence
“A little bit of research later, we found that the steel bead is the core problem. Its very high tensile – basically piano wire. If you put it in a car tyre shredder, the shredder itself strips out the steel and wraps it around the cutting teeth, putting a machine down for 48 hours.
“On top of that, the steel itself is so hard that it actually chips the cutting teeth.”
This information led the Velorim team to develop a specialised machine that will rip bicycle tyres apart, including the metal bead, so the steel can then be recycled.
After that stage, the process is quite straightforward with the rubber going through two shredding stages. A first stage shred to 15mm can be used in equestrian surfaces.
A second stage shred, to a 5mm rubber crumb, will remove fibres that can be used in construction and insulation and rubber that could be used for flooring or other commercial products.
De-vulcanisation is still being researched by Velorim, but this would see the rubber converted into a new raw material that can be used to create new products.
Taylor added: “The further downstream processes are fairly standard now in the rubber industry. It’s more a matter of us being able to break that initial first stage and have sufficient volume to be able to invest and throughput on the plan.”
At the moment, Velorim collects from around 700 locations across the UK as part of the National Bicycle Tyre Recycling Scheme. This includes approximately 500 public drop off points at local bike shops, with the rest made up of mobile mechanics, warehouses and charities.
Although this is impressive, Lawrence and Taylor believe it is just scratching the surface.
“It sounds a lot but it is only around 1% of the market,” said Lawrence.
“We are aiming at doing 20% within a couple of years.”
A change in legislation that could accelerate that growth is an outright ban on bicycle tyre disposal in landfill – something that DEFRA has been consulting on.
“In Scotland it is now against the law to put bike tyres or inner tubes into household waste,” said Lawrence.
“About half the councils in the [rest of the] UK have told waste people that they can refuse to take household waste if they see tyres or even tubes in it.
“The legislation is stretched along the lines of ‘you must do this first, and if you can’t, do this’, so it’s a hierarchy of disposal, of which putting into landfill is right at the bottom.”
To address this, Velorim will be engaging with local authorities to encourage residents to visit a local centre to dispose of tyres and tubes.
Velorim’s organic expansion has relied on buy-in and support from retailers, workshops and customers who are willing to go the extra mile to recycle.
In an effort to make it cost neutral for stores, Velorim suggests a charge for anyone looking to recycle their tyres and tubes.
“A pound a tyre, 50p an inner tube should go a long way to covering their costs,” said Lawrence
“There are some [businesses] where the majority of the stuff they throw is their own, as they don’t do much in the way of customer repairs, so they don’t get many people coming through.
“So there’s always going to be a few who say ‘I’m sorry, this is costing us too much, we can’t do this anymore’. But the majority [of retailers] are very, very positive.
One sector that faces cost challenges of recycling is bike refurbishment charities.
“Very often the bike will come in with bald tyres and punctures, so they have to fit new tyres and tubes,” said Taylor.
“Then they’ve got the problem of disposing of the waste.
“That needs to be a mindset change on the behalf of the donor to say ‘look, we understand this is going to cost the charity’ so a five pound donation for each of the bikes should cover the cost of the waste.
“We are working to try and find ways to mitigate that.”
Another side of the collaboration comes on the behalf of the suppliers and manufacturers.
With electrical goods, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations (WEEE) means the manufacturer, distributor, or retailer has to finance the collection, treatment, recovery and environmentally sound disposal of household WEEE collected in the UK.
In the car tyre industry it is done as a tax on the consumer with a nominal fee added to the bill of a new tyre – similar to Velorim currently.
Looking ahead, Velorim is developing a scheme where a tyre brand would receive a voucher to go with the sale of any new product.
“When the tyre is sold, the voucher goes with it and that’s redeemable at any Velorim centre to cover the cost of recycling,” said Taylor.
“So to the consumer it’s free because the manufacturer has paid for it in advance.”
It’s clear throughout the conversation with Lawrence and Taylor that Velorim could play a key role in UK cycling’s ability to call itself truly sustainable.
With bikes and other forms of micromobility often seen as the only way forward for green methods of transport, the trade has to do its own part by being as environmentally-friendly as it can.
To achieve this, projects like Velorim’s National Bicycle Tyre Recycling Scheme need to succeed, and to succeed, they need industry backing.
“If you haven’t got the facilities to recycle anywhere within your local area, they [local authorities] can’t ask you to recycle,” said Lawrence.
Taylor added: “We still regularly get comments of ‘well, our nearest [Velorim] centre is 75 miles from where I live’.
“So we really need to aim for the 2,000 number for people to be able to recycle.”
So what do businesses need to do to become a Velorim centre?
“It’s the easiest thing in the world,” said Lawrence.
“Drop me an email saying you want to become a Velorim centre, I send you the paperwork, you sign it and send it back, two days later you’re a Velorim centre.”