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A decision by the European Commission's Reach Committee puts the Italian rubber recycling chain at risk. Possible alternatives and actions were discussed at a conference.

On 26 April, the European Commission's Reach Committee approved a proposal for a restriction, which will be examined and voted on definitively in the European Council and Parliament within the next two months, that would prohibit the use of 0.5 mm recycled rubber granules as infill in synthetic turf sports surfaces after a transitional period of eight years.

According to Unirigom, the Union of Italian Rubber Recyclers:

the collection and recycling chain of end-of-life tyres risks coming to a standstill due to the absence of outlet markets for the materials obtained from their treatment and recycling. A critical situation for operators will arise following the likely European stop to the use of recycled rubber in synthetic turf football pitches, an Italian excellence. We call on the Ministries of the Environment and the Ministry of Enterprise and Made in Italy to launch a round table with the operators who have invested in this sector in order to guarantee it a circular future.

Approximately 370,000 tonnes of End-of-Life Tyres (ELTs) are collected and managed annually in Italy: about 52% of the rubber is sent for energy recovery, while the remaining 160,000 tonnes (48%) are destined for material recovery. Of the ELTs recovered energetically, most are exported to plants located abroad (mainly Turkey), while less than 50,000 tonnes are recovered by the 5 authorised plants at national level. As far as material recovery is concerned, which is rather complex for materials obtained from ELTs, about 135,000 tonnes are sent for granulation and then used mainly (more than 50%) as infill for sports surfaces. Still very limited is the use of the powder obtained from the treatment as an additive for the laying of so-called rubberized asphalts, which instead, if properly supported, would guarantee the absorption of significant quantities of material.

The impact on the ELT rubber granule market

This is a market that today absorbs about 40% of the recycled rubber granules produced in Europe, and a technology used in about 5,000 sports facilities throughout Italy, more than 1,600 of which have been homologated by the National Amateur League and are therefore built according to the most advanced technical and sustainability requirements, also in terms of reducing the risk of dispersion of the performance infill material, which is usually made of recycled rubber granules.

This decision, so eagerly awaited as anticipated by Unirigom President Renzo Maggiolo in this interview, can have a significant impact not only on the sports sector, but on the entire Italian rubber recycling industry, a sector in which our country is at the forefront in Europe.

During the conference, Maggiolo also emphasised how:

the absolute ban on the use of recycled granules on football pitches constitutes a measure that is totally disproportionate to the actual risk for the environment, and causes irreparable damage to the circular economy by depriving the recycling sector of one of the main outlets for the use of these materials. As of today, in fact, Italy does not have any alternative solutions to cope with the greater quantity made available by the ban on this application (considering also, of course, the ban on disposing of ELTs in landfills), and would therefore be forced to increase exports outside the Community, with further cost increases for the environment and for the ELT management chain (which would inevitably be reflected in the eco-contributions applied to the price of tyres paid by consumers)

Ecopneus, Unirigom and Assoambiente: a conference to raise political awareness

It is in this context that, on 23 May, two of the rubber industry's leading associations, together with Assoambiente, organised a conference in Rome dedicated to the future of the circular economy in the ELT recycling sector. The main objective was to bring to the attention of institutional stakeholders the main critical elements threatening the ELT management chain and the proposals the promoters had identified to overcome them.

For the Institutions, Dr. Mastachini delegated by Dr. Carlo Zaghi, Ministry of the Environment and Energy Security, Dania Esposito, Head of the ISPRA hazardous substances section, Francesco Virtuani, Circular Economy Division and policies for eco-sustainable development Ministry of Enterprise and Made in Italy, Roberta De Carolis, Researcher Department of Sustainability of Productive and Territorial Systems, ENEA 11:10. Deputy Minister for the Environment and Energy Security Vannia Gava unfortunately had to cancel her attendance due to the emergency in Emilia-Romagna, but she was keen to send a message of participation in the activities.

The event highlighted the opportunities and challenges that the country faces in the field of sustainable management of end-of-life tyres. Among the speakers were numerous experts and professionals in the sector, including Roberto De Simone, CSO of Rubber Conversion, who brought testimony of the many opportunities open for the recovery of rubber thanks to chemical recycling technologies.

A real risk for the Italian rubber industry

The conference focused on the heavy impact of ELTs on the circular economy, with the concrete risk of the gradual closure of granule production plants in Italy, triggered by the recent pronouncement of the European Commission - Reach Committee: a crucial step for the entire national and European recycling sector, which will prevent the use of polymeric infills in synthetic turf sports surfaces, in order to avoid, is the Committee's position, the dispersion of microgranules into the environment.

The event provided an important platform to examine new perspectives, technological innovations and strategies for the sustainable management of tyre waste.

A limit for the technological development of the circular economy of end-of-life tyres

The European measure defines a narrow range of possible uses for recycled rubber, effectively cutting off the new opportunities opened up by research and development in the sector, which are already concrete in other foreign markets. In particular, it places a limit on the possible introduction of new technologies, some already tested, others in the pipeline, effectively halting the sector's development.

Roberto De Simone, CSO of Rubber Conversion:

While it is true that the decision of the Reach Committee jeopardises the survival of rubber dust production plants and the related jobs, there are numerous alternative uses for rubber dust that provide excellent opportunities for continuity of production and enable the recycling and recovery of end-of-life tyres to be pushed further. In particular, chemical recycling processes such as pyrolysis and devulcanisation offer effective and technologically proven alternatives to continue using this material, ensuring continuity in the industrial chain. To date, however, there are restrictions on the legislative front and corrective action is therefore indispensable.

Pyrolysis: classifying granular rubber as suitable for recovery

These include pyrolysis from recycled rubber, through which it is possible to obtain oil and carbon black that can be reused in the production of new tyres, thus closing the circle of ELT reuse. It is therefore essential that Granular Vulcanised Rubber (GVG) be classified as a product that can be used in pyrolysis processes (thus eliminating the definition of 'waste recovery' for this process) and, above all, the definition of a clear and single scheme at national level for the authorisation process of ELT pyrolysis plants, to guarantee clear and certain timescales for all parties involved.

The importance of rubber powder asphalt

During the conference, the importance of the spread of rubber powder asphalts was highlighted as a significant opportunity in the circular economy of end-of-life tyres in Italy. This technology allows the use of recovered rubber powder as a component for the production of bituminous mixtures used for road paving.

The use of rubber powder asphalts offers several advantages. Firstly, it reduces dependence on virgin raw materials and contributes to the conservation of natural resources and the reduction of environmental impact. In addition, the addition of rubber powder improves the characteristics of the asphalt, giving it greater elasticity and strength, increasing its durability and shock-absorbing capacity, and reducing the formation of cracks and fractures in the road pavement. This leads to increased safety and reduced maintenance costs in the long term.

The deployment of asphalts with rubber powder, however, also faces some challenges. Quality standards need to be developed to ensure the safety and reliability of asphalt mixtures containing it. Furthermore, it is crucial to promote awareness and acceptance by the relevant authorities and stakeholders in the road infrastructure sector.

Despite these challenges, the use of asphalts with rubber powder represents a real opportunity for the sector. Collaboration between the public and private sectors, investment in research and knowledge exchange between stakeholders can foster the spread of this technology, leading to a more sustainable management of end-of-life tyres and the creation of a stronger and more resilient circular economy.

The role of policy and regulation

The event underlined the importance of effective policies and regulations to promote the circular economy of end-of-life tyres in Italy. A clear regulatory framework and economic incentives are needed to promote the separate collection, recycling and proper disposal of used tyres. Circular economy policies must be integrated at national and regional level to ensure sustainable and uniform management throughout the country.

The importance of collaboration between public and private entities

During the conference, the important role of collaboration between public and private entities in promoting the circular economy of end-of-life tyres emerged. The synergy between the public sector, companies and organisations in the sector can foster the exchange of knowledge, the sharing of best practices and the implementation of innovative projects. Furthermore, it is crucial to foster the creation of collaboration networks involving all actors of the end-of-life tyre chain.

On this front, the Hon. Vannia Gava - Deputy Minister of the Environment and Energy Security, stated in her message that:

The commitment of the Government and the Ministry of the Environment is for greater sustainability that is environmental, social and economic. For our part, we immediately took up the sector's demands and started the revision of the End of Waste decree for ELTs, which will make the uses of recycled rubber more flexible. In the revision, the new uses will include new markets that we hope can partially replace that of sporty infills, and with the CAM roads, mandatory minimum requirements for the presence of ELT-derived materials in bituminous mixtures will be included, so as to increase their durability and resistance and thus meet an ever-increasing demand, fuelled also by the PNRR funds and fundamental to allow the country to take one more step in the recycling and circular economy sector

At the end of the conference, Federico Dossena - General Manager of Ecopneus, stated that:

The challenges ahead, as always, are opportunities for Ecopneus to improve the ELT recovery system. We ask technical and institutional stakeholders to follow this work of ours and to support the path ahead with the necessary regulatory and normative interventions. The aim of our commitment is the objectives of sustainability and circular economy in the country, for which the institutions are primarily responsible. Asphalts with rubber powder and chemical recycling of ELTs remain crucial areas on which we ask all responsible parties to play their part, with clear and concrete actions
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