Solving a major ecological issue

Following two years of research, Velorim has launched its National Bicycle Tyre Recycling Scheme. James Groves caught up with director Richard Lawrence to find out more

How was Velorim first concepted?
We knew that common frame and parts materials such as steel, aluminium and plastics were pretty simple to recycle, so we started looking at tyres and inner tubes, which are far more complicated. Inner tubes, to an extent, are accounted for by those overseas who make handbags, wallets and the like, but they will only take a small amount.

There are craft reprocessors out there who will look at tyres, but they want new ones. For example, if they want to make a belt, they want it to look nice.  We did plenty of research but couldn’t find anywhere out there that specifically recycles bike tyres and inner tubes.

So we broadened the search and spoke to car tyre reprocessors – they were the obvious people to talk to, after all. They were willing to take our tyres at a cost of £1.50 each. But if you look at Bike For Good, a charity in Glasgow, it has a stockpile of 20,000 tyres. You do the maths! We also came across someone in Loughborough who has hired an industrial unit just to store surplus tyres, so we knew it had become a major issue. From there, we spent two years speaking to many, many people in the UK to build an appropriate model for Velorim that best serves the cycling industry.

What was your research method?
The first research we did was running through all the stats. We worked out how many bikes were being sold in the UK, how many were on the road, what the average life cycle of a tyre is, how much use each bike is getting, etc.

That worked out at around 30.5 million tyres per year being scrapped, and around five inner tubes per tyre. That’s 152.5 million inner tubes. It’s 44,000 tonnes per year being dumped straight into landfill. We stumbled onto a problem that was ten times larger than we expected.

We’ve been working with Birmingham University to find ways to devulcanise the tyre rubber, which is quite a technical challenge, but we’ve come up with three different ways of doing it. Working with the inner tubes is considerably easier.

How will Velorim look at launch – how will it work?
We are launching the Velorim collection process on a trial basis. At present, we’ve got 33 confirmed collection centres and will expand as go along. The collections will be started by early August. There are thousands of bike shops out there, and it causes logistics issues where you’ve got shops who might only get through two bags per year. Then you’ve got some in central London who might get through two bags per day. The logistics are more difficult than the actual collection and processing, and that’s what the next few months are going to be about. We’ll have ongoing partnerships with the shops.

The contract will be based on how often you want a collection. We can’t ask all shops to have a collection every week, every fortnight, every month, because every shop is different. It will essentially be a standard waste collection service.

What sort of reaction have you got from IBDs?
Pretty much every shop we’ve spoken to has been very keen. The main queries have been costs and recycling methodologies. One of the larger chains is not interested in signing up with us unless we can prove those methodologies. They don’t want us taking money for it and then dumping them in landfill, or using them as mulch for equestrian centres, which we can totally appreciate! It defeats the object. But in short, everyone we’ve spoken to has said yes.

Scotland has been all over this. Primarily that’s down to the fact that the Scottish Government now has an absolute ban on putting any form of tyres, cars, bikes, motorbikes, into landfill. Even as an individual putting a tyre into your bin, and the disposal guys see it, they will refuse to take it.

You mentioned one of the main queries is cost.
Most people, understandably, look at this and say ‘I’m paying £90 per bag for it to be collected. That’s £90 out of my profit margin. How do I deal with this?’ Fortunately, we can run this as a cost-neutral system. One of our bags will take between 150 and 180 tyres. Of course, that depends on how large the tyres are, and how long you spend jumping up and down on them!

For IBDs, we are suggesting 50p per tyre and 20p per inner tube for those who bring recycling into the shops. You can work it so that if you change tyres for the customer in the shop, you just slap another 50p onto the cost of the tyre. We don’t believe that customers are going to mind. 50p per tyre at 180 tyres is £90, which covers the cost of the bag. Even if someone walks into a shop, doesn’t purchase anything, but is charged £3 for the six tyres they’ve brought in, I don’t think they’re going to baulk at that.

How does an IBD advertise the recycling scheme?
When an IBD signs up as a Velorim Centre, they’ll get window stickers. We can also offer floor stickers and collection bins, with separate bags for tyres and inner tubes. What they will get is a bag for the tyres, a separate bag for the inner tubes.

We’ll also give them leaflets to explain to the end customer exactly how it works. Most cyclists have a very green mentality. It might primarily be for fitness, or for commuting, but there’s always that extra bonus of helping the environment. When they realise they can help the environment even more at minimal cost and little inconvenience, I think they will be more than happy to help.

Earlier you referred to charity organisations with thousands of tyres stockpiled. What can you offer them?
Naturally, if a company has 1,000 tyres stockpiled, that would, in theory, cost £500. It’s a lot for a small charity to spend, so we’re looking at significant discounts for situations such as that. We’ll do everything we can to help them.

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