Where the rubber hits the road

Vertical rubber tire tracks in sand
UBCO researchers determine tire particles can impact fresh water

This article originally appeared on UBC Okanagan News.

Ever wonder what happens to the rubber tread that wears off a vehicle’s tires?

New modelling by UBC Okanagan researchers suggests an increasing amount of microplastics—fragments from tires and roadways—are ending up in lakes and streams.

The UBCO School of Engineering researchers developed a conceptual framework to examine the potential contamination originating from the regular use of vehicles on roads and highways. Their findings suggest that more than 50 tonnes of tire and road wear particles are released into waterways annually in an area like the Okanagan.

“The results are quite significant,” said Dr. Haroon Mian, a UBC Postdoctoral Research Associate and study lead author. “It’s especially alarming considering that this microscopic waste can contaminate our freshwater sources.”

Tires are critical for transportation and about 1.5 billion tires are produced annually to meet global demand—leading to almost six million tonnes of tire and road wear particles being generated around the world.

Both synthetic rubber and vulcanized natural rubber are considered forms of elastomeric polymers contributing to microplastics. It isn’t simply the rubber that causes contamination, said Dr. Mian.

“Over time, all of those materials begin to break down and can release chemical additives that affect aquatic species,” he explained.

While some of the materials end up in the atmosphere, the majority of the tire and road wear particles are spread across roadways and eventually end up in aquatic environments. The results of his study indicate that almost 15 tonnes of tire and road wear particles can be transmitted to lake surface water each year, he added.

This is not only a global issue, but a local one, he pointed out. The research was done locally and he says lakes like Okanagan and Kalamalka are being unknowingly contaminated every day as thousands of people drive the highways connecting BC interior communities.

“This analysis focused on a small section of highway in the BC interior, but the findings suggest that other regions across Canada may experience the same challenges with this type of contamination,” said Mian. “A more uniform and comprehensive management and treatment strategy must be developed to limit the possible environmental ramifications.”

As part of his research, Mian also conducted a scenario-based assessment to estimate tire and road wear emissions by considering various real-time factors such as tire and roadway degradation in the environment and seasonal variations.

The report recommends implementing tire wear labels and standardization policies, adopting tire pressure monitoring systems, and applying wetlands or roadside swales as a secondary runoff treatment.

The research appeared in the latest edition of Science of the Total Environment and was supported by Kal Tire and Mitacs.

UBC Crest The official logo of the University of British Columbia. Arrow An arrow indicating direction. Arrow in Circle An arrow indicating direction. Caret An arrowhead indicating direction. E-commerce Cart A shopping cart. Time A clock. Chats Two speech clouds. Facebook The logo for the Facebook social media service. Home A house in silhouette. Information The letter 'i' in a circle. Instagram The logo for the Instagram social media service. Linkedin The logo for the LinkedIn social media service. Social Media The globe is the default icon for a social media platform. TikTok The logo for the TikTok social media platform. Location Pin A map location pin. Mail An envelope. Telephone An antique telephone. Play A media play button. Search A magnifying glass. Arrow indicating share action A directional arrow. Speech Bubble A speech bubble. Star An outline of a star. Twitter The logo for the Twitter social media service. Urgent Message An exclamation mark in a speech bubble. User A silhouette of a person. Vimeo The logo for the Vimeo video sharing service. Youtube The logo for the YouTube video sharing service. Future of work A logo for the Future of Work category. Inclusive leadership A logo for the Inclusive leadership category. Planetary health A logo for the Planetary health category. Solutions for people A logo for the Solutions for people category. Thriving cities A logo for the Thriving cities category. University for future A logo for the University for future category.