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The incoming revolution

Circular economy 


The recent update of the European regulatory framework on circular economy will prompt Member States to adopt new productive models. The tire industry has an important role to play in this new scenario

Guido Gambassi

For several years, ideas of a circular economy have been the talk of the town, and now, after the final approval of a new package of European directives, this somewhat abstract concept is about to become a reality. Here is a brief review of the basics: what is a circular economy? According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, an American private foundation that has been active in promoting this model for 40 years, the term "circular economy" refers to an economic system in which the biological cycle is designed to feed back into the system through processes like composting and anaerobic digestion, while technical cycles recover and restore products, components, and materials through recycling. In this model, waste deriving from production activities and consumption are redirected into the production cycle according to a logic of regeneration of resources in order to reduce the human impact on the environment.

With the aim setting a course in this precise direction, the European Union launched, in 2015, an "Action Plan for a circular economy", which was based on four legislative initiatives aimed at updating the main Community rules on waste management, namely: 1) a directive amending the 2008/98/EC Waste Framework Directive; 2) amendments to the 94/62/EC directive on packaging and packaging waste; 3) amendments to the 1991/31/EC directive on landfill of waste; 4) amendments to the 2003/53/EC directive (end-of-life vehicles), to directive 2006/66/EC (batteries, accumulators and related waste) and 2012/19/EU (WEEE, waste electrical and electronic equipment). After three years, following a frantic work based on revising, negotiating and updating, the four directives of the "circular economy package", with Italian MEP Simona Bonafè acting as “rapporteur”, were finally approved by the European Parliament (April 18, 2018) and by the European Council (22 May). The core of the new Waste Framework Directive lies in stringent rules on recovery and re-use targets, to be implemented by individual Member States by the end of May 2020 (i.e. 24 months from approval). As far as Italy is concerned it will mean updating all current legislative decrees on the same issues - first and foremost the L.D. 152/2006, known as the "Environmental Code".

And here is precisely where a crucial phase starts for our country, one that the entire National tire supply chain is monitoring with great interest: from companies involved in collecting and recycling ELTs, to other industrial players engaged in retreading processes. However, while the former can at least rely on a forthcoming review of the ministerial decrees on ELTs, which should make it possible to extend the use of raw material according to the materials obtained from disposed tires, as far as retreaders are concerned we are looking at a blank page. The Chairman of AIRP, Italian Association of Tire Retreaders, Stefano Carloni, is fully aware of this fact: "Retreads are a perfect example of a circular economy, with vital benefits from an  environmental point of view - says Carloni. These benefits are unanimously recognized, even though incentives (as in many other sectors) aimed at promoting the sales of environmentally sustainable products have been rather scarce". Hence retreaders have been anticipating the release of these new directives. And with good reason; especially if we go back to reading the comment of Hon. Bonafè after the final approval of the circular economy package: "The institutions are now called upon to support whoever has already started along this path or is preparing to do so by supporting, even through strategic financial investments, a continental economic and cultural revolution that can no longer be postponed”.

The text of the new waste directive offers numerous indications that leave little doubt about the intended course of action, and on how activities such as retreading fits perfectly within a circular model: "Member States take measures to avoid waste generation. At least, these measures: [...] encourage the design, production and the efficient use of tires from a resource point of view, which must also be durable (also in terms of lifespan and absence of programmed obsolescence), repairable, reusable and upgradeable; [...] encourage the re-use of products and the creation of systems that promote maintenance and repair activities as well as reuse", states Art.9. Moreover, on strategic asset management, it is stated that "Some raw materials are of great importance for the economy of the Union and their procurement is associated with high levels of risk. With a view to guaranteeing such procurement [...] Member States should take measures to promote the reuse of essential raw materials, in order to prevent such materials from becoming waste. In this context, the Commission has established a list of such strategic materials for the Union", and this list includes, as one would expect, natural rubber, which has a 100% import dependency rate.

All arguments that once more, according to AIRP’s Chairman, put the retreading industry back in the picture: "We are not saying that retreads, as a virtuous case of circular economy, though threatened by the massive use of cheap disposable tires, should be encouraged through government incentives. The question is much broader: implementing a true circular economy means promoting the design and production of durable, reusable and repairable goods. Therefore,  even tires must be designed to be retreadable from the start". A solution that finds an objective obstacle in the lack of any kind of certification or labelling that proves the retreadability of a tire. "This is not really a problem per se, but an opportunity - comments Carloni - because we cannot talk about a circular economy without having any idea of ​​which tires can be retreaded (and how many times) and which ones cannot, and in the absence of a real labelling system we believe that a basic statistical calculation made on a sufficiently large sample will, in a short time, provide a more than effective indicator for the market". Michelin’s CEO, Jean-Dominique Senard, chipped in by making it clear that the tide is turning, and has recently declared that the industry must aim to reduce the global production of tires by 400 million units, which represents a great source of savings for the consumers and protection for the environment. Certainly, the issues to be addressed in order to be able to ferry the tire industry towards a circular economy age remain numerous and complex, and will require major efforts from industry and institutions alike. "However, we must not stop when faced with difficulties, we must take action to find solutions and measures to facilitate the creation of the new industrial model, reviewing the current productive, fiscal and organizational systems, bringing retreads and environmental taxes back in the picture", concludes AIRP’s Chairman.

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