Burning rubber probably isn’t high on your list of things to worry about. But perhaps it should be—the environmental and health impacts of burning rubber are particularly worrisome. Here’s why.
In Australia alone, it’s estimated approximately fifty million tyres are thrown away each year—but only 15 per cent of these tyres are handled responsibly. Because they take up a lot of space in landfill, it’s common to recycle tyres by setting them on fire. Burning also helps process the rubber for other purpose such as manufacturing other rubber products, road construction, or alternative fuel sources.
Unfortunately, a rubber-based fire can burn continuously for months or even years. And the effects on air quality for the surrounding environment makes this a dangerous and irresponsible way to recycle tyres.
Burning rubber releases thick black smoke that stays in the air for long periods of time. The smoke contains several toxic pollutants, including carbon monoxide, cyanide, sulphur dioxide, butadiene, and styrene—names that spell danger for the environment and public health.
The smoke from rubber is made up of small, fine particles, so it’s easy to inhale. Direct exposure to it can lead to acute respiratory symptoms, chronic illness, or make your existing health condition worse. Most at risk are those with lung or heart conditions, asthma, children, pregnant women, and people aged above 65.
Rubber smoke is also harmful to the environment because it carries a hefty amount of carbon monoxide. Research has found that air pollution is a significant factor in the creation of greenhouse gases, which leads to climate change and global warming. With 50 million tyres burning in Australia alone, it’s easy to imagine how much damage it’s doing to our global environment.
But it’s not only the smoke that’s a problem. Discarded tyres, particularly those left in bushland or waterways, often become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which can then cause outbreaks of disease including Ross River and Dengue fevers. These diseases have been known to kill.
What can we do?
If you do live near an actively burning tyre dump, there are a few things you can do to stay safer. The smoke will affect the air quality in surrounding areas, so it’s important to avoid outdoor activities.
Staying indoors isn’t a workable solution though. That’s why it’s so important to minimise the risks of used tyres and research more sustainable ways to dispose of them that won’t harm our environment or our bodies.
Recycling efforts are underway, but they’ve yet to find a long term solution to the problem. End-of-life tyres can be turned into a range of useful products, including new rubber products like soft fall surfaces in playgrounds, artificial turf, brake pads and conveyor belts.
Some companies are using recycled rubber from tyres to create new road surfaces and construction projects. Yet others are trialling it as an alternative fuel for energy producers or using it in cement.
Approximately 3 per cent of Australia’s discarded tyres (equivalent to 19 tonnes) are broken down into raw materials each year—in addition to 7 kg of rubber, each car tyre contains around 1.5kg of steel and 0.5kg of textiles.