Why motorsport can’t afford to overlook the tyre pollution problem

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Although emissions from cars are a tiny percentage of the pollution produced by motorsport, they’re the most obvious element.

Compared to the carbon dioxide produced by the vehicles themselves, tyre particulate pollution is a less obvious concern. But these too are a source of potentially harmful emissions – one the sport is increasingly realising it must address.

Motorsport needs the involvement of manufacturers and suppliers, especially at its highest and most expensive echelons. That means presenting an image which isn’t at odds with the automotive sector in general.

At a time when the sport’s environmental credentials are rightly under scrutiny – both in terms of electrification and in supply chain and production line transformation – manufactures and the companies that supply them (such as tyre producers) are in a bind between what’s been viewed as the way to promote good competition and the need for a balance between performance and reliable efficiency.

No one has ever pretended that running through thousands of tyres over a race weekend is environmentally friendly. Taking F1 as an example, each driver currently receives 20 four-tyre sets per ordinary weekend, while the series will trial a reduction at two rounds next year. Over a 23-race season, this comes to well over 9,000 tyres, and that’s before testing is taken into consideration.

High-degradation tyres can deliver performance gains but, by their nature, are highly disposable items. Road tyres, however, are likely to become one of the next frontlines for automotive environmental strife for two reasons. These are a growing awareness of tyre particulate pollution as cities fight to improve air quality and the rising likelihood of a global shortage of rubber (the only solutions to which could be even worse, environmentally, than rubber’s original proliferation as a crop).

Not well-rubbered

Pirelli tyres, Bahrain International Circuit, 2022
F1 tyres are made from natural rubber and petrol derivatives, as well as fabrics and metals
It might seem counterintuitive to look at the carbon fibre chassis and fuel-burning engine of a race car and point at the tyres as one of the least-environmentally-friendly parts of it. After all, they’re made of rubber – what’s wrong with using something plant-based?

A significant percentage of natural rubber is used in their manufacture. Although much of the construction of the outer part of a tyre is from oil, essentially a form of plastic, the basis does start in natural rubber even for something as bespoke as Pirelli’s F1 tyres.

Given about 23 litres of oil go into a standard road tyre, it might seem surprising that tyre makers are interested to find alternatives to the rubber, rather than the fossil fuel component. After all, rubber is a renewable from plants, in principal.

In reality, rubber is a problematic crop. Huge parts of Asia were deforested by colonial order to grow rubber trees as a cash crop, destroying habitats and ecosystems. Worse, the damage that was done during the rise of rubber from the mid-1800s to early 1900s is now being compounded by those plantations being abandoned as the set price of rubber as a commodity fails to increase with the cost of production for the small farmers amid the effects of climate change.

Deforestation and rubber are so linked that Pirelli proudly announced last year it had made the world’s first Forest Stewardship Council-assured tyre. This may prove an option for F1 rubber in the future.

Synthetic rubber is another possible alternative, especially in high-end motorsport usage. However it is made from oil by-products, so is not exactly an environmental win in PR terms, even if it offers benefits over natural rubber from unsustainable sources.

IndyCar tyre supplier Firestone announced it will test tyres made using sustainably-sourced rubber at Carb Day during this year’s Indianapolis 500. They will be first seen in competition at the Nashville Grand Prix. Instead of sourcing rubber from rubber trees, the most conventional source, it will take the compound from guayule, a shrubby plant found in the deserts of the southern US and northern Mexico.

The third option is in alternative rubber sources like the dandelion-derived taraxagum which is used for Extreme E’s tyres by Continental. Goodyear launched a cultivation project for the crop in America last month. Whatever the solution, the likelihood that tyre companies and the carmakers they supply will want to advertise greener credentials than rubber wherever possible is a certainty.


Temporary circuits like Miami put F1’s green credentials under scrutiny
The growing number of street races on the Formula 1 calendar may unexpectedly put greater focus on the pollution produced by its tyres.

The Miami Grand Prix will go ahead this weekend despite residents’ attempts to block the event on the new Miami International Autodrome. Protests against noise levels and pollution have gone through legal processes and will likely continue every year the race is held, especially if new challenges can be found. Residents near other circuits may consider similar steps especially as the tyre particulate pollution produced by vehicles is increasingly understood.

Tyre rubber degrades on any car. Particulate pollution from tyres has been suggested to be up to 1,000 times worse than from exhaust fumes in cities and has a serious environmental impact in coastal and riverside areas, contributing significantly to marine microplastic contamination.

As with anything in motorsport, the amount of rubber and particulates coming from the 20 cars on-track is likely to be a tiny percentage of the weekend’s pollutant toll, those cars are the spectacle being attended for and as such, tyre marbles flinging off them is fuel for critics. F1 events, especially with more street circuits added to the calendar, require local support and funding and disgruntled residents finding their own cars limited or taxed in an area will find it easy to point fingers.

Formula E limits tyre use much more strictly than F1. Drivers get three full sets for a double-header or two sets for a single, balancing them between practice, qualifying and the race. FE tyres are not designed to be high-degradation and the Michelin all-weather compound has a minimal amount in common with, say, a Pirelli slick other than both being round and black.

There’s no guarantee that the series’ tyres pollute less than F1’s, in particulate terms, over the same distance. Tyre companies have rarely been required to measure it and hence it is poorly understood, besides the fact heavier vehicles produce more of it.

New tyre constructions which negate or capture particulates are being researched and produced, offering an obvious opportunity for motorsport to contribute to developing greener technologies. If a series could show particulate capture as part of its racing then that would be a big win, especially to sell itself as city-friendly. However, it would likely come at a cost of performance.

Motorsport has never had an easy balance between impact and excitement. But at a sensitive moment for the automotive industry, staying in front of the discussion will be crucial to future contracts for races and suppliers.

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a motorsport and automotive journalist with a particular interest in hybrid systems, electrification, batteries and new fuel technologies....

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36 comments on “Why motorsport can’t afford to overlook the tyre pollution problem”

  1. Really informative, well researched, and well written. One might also consider the issues of land-filing toxic used tires.

  2. Great post overall. Informative & well-researched.
    Things indeed also have to improve on the tyre side when moving towards carbon-neutrality.
    The dry set amount is 13 rather than 20, but I wouldn’t mind if 11 or perhaps 10 became standard instead, as more often than not, less is enough.

    1. Taking F1 as an example, each driver currently receives 20 four-tyre sets per ordinary weekend

      Definitely doesn’t say 13 dry sets. Definitely says 20 sets (ie: 13 dry, 4 intermediate, 3 wet)

  3. Excellent article Hazel! I am intrigued to see if F1 follows IndyCar’s lead here and what they intend to do about tire particulates. Brake particulates are also pretty nasty things, it will be interesting to see how they tackle that when the time comes as well.

  4. Thanks Hazel. A really interesting article, with lots of stuff in it that many of us didn’t know, or even had ever thought of!

  5. Great article. Always frustrated me that even unused tyres get destroyed after the race weekend.
    It’ll be really interesting to see how F1 embraces the future of tyres. How do you suddenly sell longer lasting tyres as “better for the show” after years of mandatory pit stops that are supposedly “better for the show”?
    I imagine that F1 will be happy with a sustainable rubber substitute even if its not ultimately much greener in the long run as long as performance is there, although I would love to be proved wrong and for F1 to push further.

  6. Incredibly informative and thorough article @hazelsouthwell
    How’d you manage to piece this all together so quickly after your Monaco escapades over the weekend?!

  7. Kinda makes you wonder what happens to discarded EV batteries, wind turbine blades, and solar panels.

    1. All things that are used for less than an hour, then thrown away, right?

    2. whybother
      3rd May 2022, 3:49

      Whatabout something else eh, eh?

    3. It doesn’t make me wonder at all. Most of the components that make up renewable energy sources can be recycled or repurposed. Relative to car tyres they also have a long life.

      Car tyres can also be recycled but this doesn’t really solve the particulate problem.

      1. Matt (@hollidog)
        4th May 2022, 8:12

        Solar panels cannot currently be recycled in my country, this is true across a lot of parts of the world. While they are mostly glass, they also contain cadmium and lead which are toxic. The solar panels are often damaged, leaving shards of shattered glass scattered across wherever they are, and those toxic elements leaking into the soil. Look at what happened in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

        Same for wind turbines, the fibreglass that is used to construct the blades cannot be recycled, and is very toxic – ever tried to work with the stuff? Not to mention the kilotons of carbon that are released from the soil mining the steel and copper used in the rest of the pylons etc.

        Green is not green. Nuclear, geothermal, and hydrolectric are really the only answer.

        1. That is only an issue with older solar panels. Newer designs have addressed these issues.
          Windmill blades can be recycled now. The main firm doing it actually recycles them and makes new windmill blades from the fiberglass.

          The materials mined or recycled to create solar panels and windmills pales in comparison to the materials mined, drilled and used for fossil fuel development, the danger of radiation posed by nuclear waste, and even the immense embodied carbon needed for large hydroelectric dams.

    4. “Discarded” EV batteries can be recycled into new EV batteries or used for battery storage projects by utilities. Wind turbine blades are fiberglass, they are recycled and the fiberglass is made into new wind turbine blades. Solar panels can also be recycled.

      You could have simply Googled to find this out instead of making a ill-informed political point.

  8. As others above have mentioned, great article @hazelsouthwell! Beyond what the others have said above, two things stuck out to me.

    The first is that it seems ironic that Firestone is shifting away from rubber tree-based tyres given their very long and well-documented troubling history with their rubber plantations in Liberia.

    The second is that beyond the abysmal environmental impacts of discarded rubber marbles from races, they also make for poorer races. How many times have we seen in the later stages of a race, someone who is clearly quicker but can’t make an overtaking maneuver into a corner because the marbles make everything off the racing line too treacherous to attempt a pass? The only places an overtake can take place during the later stages of a race are usually the straights with a DRS assist. If they were able to solve the problem of discarded rubber, not only would it help the environment but it would also help improve the racing by opening up multiple lines into a corner. A double win for all involved.

    1. I recall at the peak of the Bridgestone vs Michelin era the amount of discarded rubber/marbles offline on certain tracks towards the end of a race was particularly severe. And that’s just what you saw on camera. It may have been made worse by the grooved tyres of the era encouraging larger chunks of tyre to break off.

      Whether it’s any better now is hard to say though. The amount of tyre worn off during a stint could be just as bad, but finer grained, allowing it to blow off the track instead of sticking to it.

  9. Fascinating article – I’d never considered rubber particulates before. It would surely be difficult to measure the impact of particulates in a “small” event of 20 cars, but in large cities it’s worrying to think such a potential hazard is completely unregulated still.

  10. Trido (@)
    3rd May 2022, 2:26

    I wish F1 (And this site) would take their green crap out of my sport.

    1. You already know what I wish.

    2. So, just keep on burning oil, releasing harmful particles and discarding remains of unethically produced rubber until ‘your sport’ becomes unwelcome in every neighborhood? Sounds like a great plan, do you need some crayons to make your school presentation about it?

    3. The world does not revolve around you.

    4. @trido it ain’t your sport

  11. Thanks Hazel for the insight. While reading, I wondered about the tyres used in the history of the sport – not the really early days but in the 1960s, for example, a set of tyres could be used for the whole weekend. Obviously going back to this model would have huge implications for performance and it wouldn’t solve the particulate problem, but it might actually make for a better spectacle as well as cutting down on the vast number of disposed tyres.

    1. I believe sets of tyres were once used across multiple events in the early days, at least by the small teams. The cars certainly slid around a bit more in the early days but speeds were much lower, as well as almost a total lack of downforce before wings were introduced in the late ’60s. It was also much less common for drivers to lock a wheel and flatspot a tyre.

  12. ** BREAKING NEWS **

    Pirelli launches tyres made from tofu. Says any debris “edible and can be consumed by local wildlife or hungry F1 fans”.

    Red Bull fans delighted they can now properly chomp on Max’s marbles.

    1. “Bono, my tyres are gone.”

  13. Neil (@neilosjames)
    3rd May 2022, 13:19

    Maybe get someone to stand trackside with a PM2.5/10 meter on the Baku main straight during first or second practice. NEEs are mostly resuspended particles from the road surface, and the first stage of track evolution is the cars cleaning up the year’s worth of dirt and dust that has accumulated on the surface since it was last used by F1.

    Doubt it would be any kind of issue as it’d only be short-term, but would be interesting (to me, anyway) to see the air quality impact of F1 cars being driven on dirty roads.

    1. what is NEE?
      i cant seem to find what it stands for.

      1. Neil (@neilosjames)
        4th May 2022, 6:46

        @marky sorry, NEE is non-exhaust emissions – particulate matter put into the air by vehicles from sources other than the exhaust pipe.

  14. Carbonized
    3rd May 2022, 13:22

    As usual Hazel on top of her thing!

    1. Our thing

  15. I remember the guy from pirelli saying they take the used tires to burn them and then recycle this into something else, but i forgot what.

  16. So what’s next, brake dust?

  17. Excellent article, thanks.

    I’ve always suspected that the impact on climate change from F1’s tyres’ manufacture and transport was significantly greater than the fuel they use. Are you able to provide any quantification of the difference?

    Seeing as F1’s clever innovation of thermal energy recovery hasn’t made it to road cars, not even the Mercedes supercar vapourware; and Formula E’s move to 800bhp without an associated increase in tyre allocation, maybe F1 could try out a return to 2005’s zero tyre change rules (ideally without the inept Pirelli) combined with a return to V12s? I suspect the net gain would be significantly positive from a climate perspective. The optics could be managed with proper quantified research showing that the 20 car’s additional fuel use just isn’t significant compared with saved tyres and freight, which could be easily cut down too.

  18. Ahhh, good news. One step away from imaginary races.

  19. I have an opinion
    4th May 2022, 2:01

    What are the environmental impacts of production, use and disposal of automotive tyres globally? And what proportion of automotive tyres are used in motorsports? These data (if available) would give this article more gravitas.

Comments are closed.