Rubber gets an eco re-do as Michelin maps a new future for road travel.
In 2017, Michelin introduced a sustainable concept in tires called the VISION. It’s an airless and low-carbon alternative to the rubber composite tires used over the last century.
“This new concept is projecting us into the future of sustainable mobility and guiding our strategic decisions, in line with our values and our corporate DNA,” said Florent Menegaux, Group Michelin CEO. “More than just a vision of the future, it’s a roadmap whose feasibility, effectiveness and advancement Michelin will be demonstrating year after year.”
While its futuristic concept may still not be road-ready, the company says it has another alternative: 100 percent sustainable rubber tires. The tire giant says it will only be producing eco tires by 2050.
The move follows other big announcements in the auto industry about the shift toward cleaner vehicles. Jaguar recently announced its plans to go completely electric by 2025.
Now, Michelin has announced a new partnership with Swedish company Enviro to create the company’s first tire recycling plant. Enviro’s focus is on material recovery; it’s patented a technology to recover materials from end-of-life tires, including carbon black, pyrolysis oil, steel, and gas.
Tires are more than just rubber; they contain upwards of 200 ingredients including synthetic rubber, metal, silica, plasticizers, and resins. Along with Enviro, Michelin’s design and development teams are working to produce a fully sustainable tire.
The French multinational company also partnered with Axens and IFP Energies Nouvelles, the two companies behind the BioButterfly project Michelin launched in 2019. That project brought the first industrial butadiene extracted from ethanol. This will help replace oil-based materials in the company’s tires.
Michelin hopes biomass from agricultural plant waste could play a major role in the future of its tires, too. It estimates at least 4.2 million tonnes of wood chips could soon be in its tires. So could recycled styrene — best known as Styrofoam.
Last November, Michelin forged a partnership with Canada’s Pyrowave to turn recycled styrene into tire materials.
According to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, nearly 300 million tires are discarded in the U.S. every year. Unlike other industries, tires have exceptionally high reuse and recycle rates — more than 80 percent. By comparison, plastic waste recycling is under 8 percent.
But the issue with tires lies in its production and the use of virgin materials with big carbon footprints. Michelin says it hopes to change that.
“Michelin’s maturity in materials technology stems from the strength of its R&D capabilities, which are supported by 6,000 people working in seven research and development centers around the world and mastering 350 areas of expertise,” the company said in a statement.
“The commitment of these engineers, researchers, chemists and developers has led to the filing of 10,000 patents covering tire design and manufacturing. They work hard every day to find the recipes that will improve tire safety, durability, ride and other performance features, while helping to make them 100% sustainable by 2050.”