Schwalbe is the world’s first and (so far) only manufacturer that not only takes back used tires but also uses them to produce new tires. Back in 2022 at Eurobike, the German tire brand announced the “Schwalbe Recycling Program,” an initiative to collect used tires, recycle them, and manufacture new tires with recycled material. This program, which won Eurobike’s “Innovators Prize,” is underway and scaling rapidly, as Schwalbe has received an initial shipment of recycled carbon black (rCB) to begin making the first batch of recycled tires. We thought this sounded exciting, so reached out to Felix Jahn, Schwalbe’s Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, to learn more about the recycling program and where it’s headed.
For over 100 years, a material called industrial carbon black has been used to manufacture rubber tires for automobiles, bicycles, and other wheeled vehicles. When tires reach the end of their functional lifespan, they are typically incinerated. In launching their recycling program, Schwalbe has teamed up with Pyrum Innovations AG and the Technical University of Cologne to create a recycled carbon black material that can be used in the creation of new tire products.
For now, this program only exists within Germany. Used tires are collected via the Schwalbe dealer network in custom recycling boxes and transported to Pyrum in Dillingen, Saarland. There, Pyrum’s pyrolysis plant mechanically processes used tires into rCB recyclate. Schwalbe claims that the holistic recycling process conserves 80% CO2 in comparison to the incineration alternative.
According to Schwalbe, production of the first bicycle tire to use rCB instead of industrial carbon black is in full swing. These new tires will be shown at Eurobike in June and then available for purchase soon after. In the meantime, Schwalbe is researching the adaptation of more rubber compounds, aiming to expand the use of rCBs and produce even more tires from recycled material.
After the recycling project was launched in the pilot phase at the beginning of 2022, with around 50 participating specialist retailers, more than 1,600 are now already taking part across Germany. By December 2022, 400,000 tires had already been recycled.
Schwalbe Recycling System Process
1) Drop off used tires at participating dealers
2) Transport of full recycling boxes to recycling partner Pyrum Innovations
3) Shredding of used tires into:
– Rubber granulate
4) Pyrum Thermolysis: Rubber granulate is converted into secondary raw materials (in pyrolysis oven at 700°C)
– Process gas: Supplies complete plant with electricity
– Pyrolysis oil: Used in chemical industry as a substitute for crude oil
– Pyrolysis coke (rCB) goes to 5)
5) Recycled into new Schwalbe products
Five Questions with Felix Jahn, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at Schwalbe
How long has it taken Schwalbe to establish this recycling program?
Our first approach to recycle used bicycle tires started over 30 years ago. The task was very difficult: Unlike an inner tube, a tire is not made of mono-material. Its structure is much more complex, with a bead core, carcass and various rubber compounds. Dismantling alone is a challenge. Not to mention remanufacturing. We are now all the more proud to finally have closed the loop.
Why have you pursued this project for so long?
We see it as our duty to act and be as resource-efficient as possible. We are pioneers in the circular economy which plays an important role in this endeavor. Quite honestly, we have always considered the burning of tires to be a climate disaster. The emissions that are produced, the resources that are lost forever. I’m sure that other old bike components can also be turned into high-quality new ones. As an industry, we can make the shift from a linear to a circular economy.
What were the key aspects of developing your system?
The most important piece of the puzzle was the trust that enabled us to conduct research together with the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne and our recycling partner Pyrum Innovations AG. Without their extraordinary commitment and the persistence of our entire team, we would not be where we are today.
What are the next steps?
We already started production of our first new tire which contains 100% recovered carbon black (rCB) from our tire recycling. This rCB fully replaces the industrial carbon black which is made of oil and gas. The tire will launch in June at Eurobike in Germany and afterward be available in stores. In the medium term, we are working on using rCB in more and more Schwalbe tires. And we aim to expand the Schwalbe Recycling System to more countries outside Germany.
Do you think other manufactures will adopt this kind of system, even outside of the cycling industry?
Our project is actually cited as a blueprint for a circular economy in the global tire and rubber industry. It makes us proud that we, as a medium-sized company, have managed to establish a showcase project within just two or three years. Of course, we only represent a small part of the gigantic scrap tire market. But what we have initiated shows that even a small wheel can set big things in motion.
To read more about Schwalbe’s Tire Recycling Program and other sustainability efforts, check out their Corporate Social Responsibility mission and report.