Automotive

Tyre Industry vs Microplastics Accusations

A growing body of scientific research linking tyre wear to microplastic pollution, as well as increasing scrutiny from lawmakers in the European Union (EU), has led the $180 billion-a-year tyre industry to fight back.

The companies have stepped up lobbying with EU lawmakers weighing tougher regulations on tyre wear, according to lawmakers and LobbyFacts.eu, a website that tracks EU lobbying data.

They are also quickly countering scientific studies on tyres and microplastic pollution with ones of their own that say tyre particles present no significant risk to humans and the environment.

Cardno ChemRisk, a U.S.-based consultancy that has worked with companies facing chemical exposure litigation, including Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N), BP Plc (BP.L) and Ford Motor Co (F.N)., is spearheading the tyre industry’s response to the microplastics threat. It declined to comment for this story.

The plastic particles, which are increasingly being found in the air, food, drinking water and even Arctic ice, may pose a risk to human health and marine life, although there is no scientific consensus on the issue.

The World Health Organization said last year that there was an urgent need to find out more about the health impact of microplastics, which some environmental researchers say could weaken the immune system.

At least 10 studies since 2014 by academics and environmental consultancies cite particles generated by friction between tyres and the road as one of the biggest sources of microplastics – fragments less than five millimetres long – being released into the environment.

REPORTS COMMISSIONED

The tyre industry has published at least ten studies over the last decade concluding that tyre particles present no significant risk to humans and the environment, and are not as prevalent as other research shows.

The reports, available online, were all fully or partly authored by Cardno ChemRisk, according to a Reuters review of the documents. Three of the reports have been published since 2017.

On its website, the consultancy says its work “is not influenced by the member companies of the (tyre) industry, nor by the trade associations”.

The Tire Industry Project (TIP) – which is funded by 11 tyre companies, including Bridgestone Corp (5108.T), The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co (GT.O), The Michelin Group MICO.PA and Continental AG (CONG.DE) – commissioned most of those assessments, according to the group’s website.

The European Tyre and Rubber Manufacturers Association (ETRMA), an industry body lobbying European lawmakers, also commissioned a study authored by Cardno ChemRisk consultants.

Two former Cardno ChemRisk employees who prepared some of the reports and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the assessments were partly aimed at preparing for potential chemical exposure claims that could be brought by individuals, companies or governments. It was not possible to independently confirm this.

“We focus on issues where we think there is a lot of litigation potential,” one of the former employees said. “If we found something that would make our client look bad, we wouldn’t publish it.”

Gavin Whitmore, a TIP spokesman, said the group’s sponsored research was aimed at “answering fundamental questions about the potential human health and environmental impacts of tyres” and not as preparation for possible chemical exposure claims. He added that the group had no knowledge of Cardno ChemRisk omitting information from its studies.

ChemRisk worked with BP after the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, Pacific Gas & Electric in the water contamination lawsuit in the 1990s that inspired the movie Erin Brockovich, and for Johnson & Johnson and Ford in asbestos cases. It was bought by Cardno, an Australian infrastructure group, in 2012.

ETRMA and TIP said the research they commissioned from Cardno ChemRisk was independent and fair.

NEW REGULATIONS LOOM

For tyre makers facing new rules, the stakes are high. EU lawmakers are considering regulations that would set minimum standards for tyre design to reduce microplastic pollution, such as the rate of abrasion and durability.

The requirement could lead to billions of dollars in redesign costs for tyre makers, three industry sources said.

Jarmo Sunnari, senior manager on standards and regulation at Nokian Tyres Oyj (TYRES.HE), a Finnish manufacturer, said the effect would be of “that kind of great magnitude”, when asked about estimates of a financial hit of billions of dollars made by several industry experts.

Such added costs would be a financial headache for an industry that has suffered a sharp drop in sales due to the coronavirus outbreak, ETRMA data last week showed.

Fazilet Cinaralp, ETRMA’s secretary general, acknowledged a cost from future regulations but that it was too early to quantify. She said ETRMA’s goal was to broaden knowledge about tyre wear by funding research and assisting with the development of a tyre wear test.

“The tyre industry wants to be part of the solution,” said Cinaralp.

Olly Jamieson, a researcher for Eunomia, a sustainability consultancy that conducted a 2018 study on tyre wear for the European Commission, said the industry tended to focus on external factors influencing tyre wear like driver behaviour, road conditions and weather, rather than things like tyre design, cited in the scientific studies.

Refs

Tyre industry pushes back against evidence of plastic pollution

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