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How Your Rubber Pollutes Our Land, Air, and Sea

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The Rubber Impact Project

For the past year and a half, designers/artists Mandana MacPherson and Gigi Obrecht have used their Rubber Impact Project (RIP) (initially funded by a grant from the Center for Impact at California College of the Arts), to focus on the environmental impacts of transportation rubber and the reuse of waste bicycle inner tubes in San Francisco.

Transportation rubber in the form of tires is a significant contributor to microplastics pollution. 

Turns out 30% of ocean microplastics are from transportation rubber sources. Marine biologists have cited road wear as the source, but other studies are revealing “reground” transportation rubber for athletic playing fields, garden mulch, and other uses as additional contributors.  Road wear from tires also impacts air quality. Studies show it exceeds the emissions coming from tailpipes. A new study reveals that over 110,000 tons of microplastics are shed from tires annually and can travel vast distances impacting air quality and ecosystems on land and sea. “the total weight of microplastics reaching the sea each year equates to just under 11 million tires”. Globally there is limited oversight. 

How does this connect to inner tubes? 

Inner tubes stand out among the various transportation rubber recycling efforts because there are unique opportunities for direct reuse of this flexible material without the toxicity issue connected to grinding rubber into small particles. For RIP, inner tubes also function as a gateway for discussing the greater environmental issues surrounding transportation rubber.  Bicycle inner tubes, which move through our U.S. cities and towns in surprisingly large numbers, have generally been written off by municipal recycling centers as having little commercial value. Most of it goes straight to landfill or incineration.

RIP’s initial research suggests that San Francisco landfills around 100,000-150,000 bicycle inner tubes annually, enough to wrap the Golden Gate bridge 33 times. This conservative estimate pre-dates the pandemic’s exponential rise in biking and does not account for bike share programs. Multiplied across the U.S., the volume is astounding for a material that doesn’t readily break down. 

Take A Tube Installation at California College of the Arts, San Francisco

To prototype concepts for a new system of diverse outlets for the material, RIP supplied inner tube samples to California College of the Art’s Materials Library to include as it’s first self-sourced, used raw material designed and installed a ‘Take A Tube, Leave a Tube’ material exchange station at California College of the Arts for collecting tubes and offering them for reuse in art and design.

 TAKE A TUBE Installation Signage at California College of the Arts, San Francisco

Supplied inner tubes to the School of Fashion at Academy of Art University for their footwear and accessories program.

California College of the Arts, Materials Librarian welcomes self-sourced, used inner tube rubber as a new material resource among the library’s selections

distributed materials to gardeners and landscapers around SF to test viability and for use in gardening/landscaping applications set up a temporary ‘grab and go inner tube reuse station’ in partnership with PLUM Architects in SF to test response and where every week about 75-100 tubes are grabbed for reuse.

Free Grab-and-Go inner tube reuse station in front of SF architectural firm Plum Architects

RIP partnered with Cesar Chavez Elementary to utilize full inner tubes as free fidget bands for busy feet 

Learning Specialist at César Chávez Elementary in San Francisco prefers free inner tubes used as fidget bands to expensive store-bought brand

San Francisco Unified School District to include RIP’s K-5 sustainability curriculum in their Zero Waste, Every Day/Earth Day program

Restoration Planting Manager at Friends of the Urban Forest receives tubes from Rubber Impact Project for use as arbor ties

Friends of the Urban Forest to adopt used inner tubes as arbor ties

Friends of the Urban Forest pilots reusing bike inner tubes as arbor ties. These can be printed at home.

Bike shops in San Francisco to count and reroute their tubes

The result of MacPherson and Obrecht’s work is an “opportunity template” for use at the community level to blend inspired design with human interaction in order to facilitate needed systemic change.  To further this mission they created a variety of communication materials on their website available for download.  And in August the Rubber Impact Project was longlisted in the Sustainable Design Category for the international Dezeen Design Awards 2020, further validating their approach in leveraging design, art, education, and the value of a community perspective when addressing sustainability. 

What can you do? 

In the UK, Friends of the Earth is petitioning their government using research from their microplastics Eunomia report. Unfortunately no such initiative exists yet in the U.S., but there are still things you can do to keep microplastics pollution out of our air and waterways and inner tubes out of our landfills. (1. and 2. adapted from Friends of the Earth

1. If you have to drive, drive with care

  • There are several eco-driving techniques that can reduce tire wear and therefore microplastic shedding. 

  • Drive smoothly and avoid aggressive maneuvering and abrupt cornering.

  • Accelerate gently, and don’t over-brake unless you have to. Brake pad wear and tear is yet another source of microplastic pollution on the roads.

  • Drive with the correct tire pressure.

  • Remove unnecessary weight from the vehicle.

  • Choose to drive smaller, lower-weight vehicles.

2. Drive less and choose to walk, cycle or take public transport

This is the preferred option, wherever possible. Shared vehicle journeys rather than single-occupancy cars would be the next best thing. Even electric cars, which are otherwise better for the environment, still have the same kind of synthetic rubber tires as conventional cars that cause microplastic pollution.

3. If you are biking, don’t toss your tubes

Bike shops in SF are handling around twice as much rubber since before the pandemic, literally drowning in tubes and loath to toss them out. Inner tube rubber is an extraordinary material with many potential uses when no longer functional inside a tire. Given the embodied energy and environmental impacts from sourcing and manufacturing, the last thing we should be doing is tossing tubes in  landfill.

RIP resource sheets describe the need to reuse viable resources as a way to curb Co2 emissions, and displays a range of ways to reuse the material. These can be printed at home.

RIP recommends:

  • Supporting the practice of reusing bicycle inner tubes instead of sending directly to landfill.

  • Changing your mindset. Bike tubes can be thought of as a fix-it material around the house or studio much like wire and duct tape. When you get your tube replaced, take it home for reuse.

Curation of work by Rubber Impact Project lead, Mandana MacPherson, and work by students.

  • Visiting the RIP website for more information, design inspiration, tutorials, and fun rubber projects everyone can do.

  • Advocating for research in the U.S. similar to what is going on in the UK that can lead to greater awareness and more comprehensive regulation on the use and reuse of transportation rubber.

  • Pressuring the government and transportation rubber industry to make change.

Simple, everyday uses for waste inner tubes: Shoelaces, Resistance Bands, Ear loops for face masks, Compost Strap to guard against raccoons, Ribbons, Bungees…

The takeaway…

Reusing materials conserves global resources while reducing air pollution, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Every day huge volumes of rubber are retired from our roadways, but the material does not leave our earth.  A circular economy demands looking at transportation rubber in more comprehensive ways in order to address the negative environmental impacts of its production, use, and end of life. It is all part of an interconnected system.  

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