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Retread tyres – a cheaper, greener alternative?

Should we be taking more notice of retreaded tyres? Yes - they're cheaper and much more environmentally friendly than brand-new tyres

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Up until about the 1990s, retread tyres were a common sight in the UK. When it was time to replace your tyres, you’d routinely be asked “new or remoulds?”. Retreading old car tyres to create what in those days were dubbed remoulds was a familiar part of the retail motor industry with many consumers saving money by buying retreaded rubber. 

Today, however, retreaded car tyres are much harder to find. Over the last couple of decades, budget-priced new tyres manufactured in the Far East, especially China, became much easier to buy in the UK. With new tyres available for potentially less than the cost of a retreaded old tyre, buying retreads became a less attractive option for customers on a budget.

And as the availability of retread tyres has declined, myths and misunderstandings have grown – that retreads are less safe than ‘proper’ tyres – they are more likely to burst, that you can’t balance them like normal tyres, and you’ll be taking a risk if you replace your original rubber with retreads.

But should we be taking more notice of retreaded tyres? The answer is yes, for three very good reasons.

Firstly, the safety scare stories have no basis in fact to back them up. Retreaded tyres, prepared correctly, should be no less safe than new tyres.

Secondly, retread tyres are cheaper than replacing with brand-new rubber at a time when we are all looking to save money.

And thirdly, they are much greener, being significantly more environmentally friendly than brand-new tyres, which is ever more an important point in today’s world.

The retreading process

First, what is retreading? Contrary to some misguided beliefs, it’s not simply cutting new tread into a tyre once the original tread has worn down. Tyre manufacturers don’t routinely coat a new tyre in twice as much rubber than it needs, so there’s no extra rubber to cut into.

A typical tyre structure is called a carcass, which encases a woven steel structure. Around the carcass is a band of rubber with the tread moulded into it. The retreading process sees the rubber band with the worn tread on it removed, usually by buffing it away, and then replacing this with a completely new band in which the new tread is moulded. This is attached to the carcass, typically by either a cold or hot-curing process.

Only certain tyres are suitable for retreading – the tyre must have a speed rating of at least 84mph (135km/h), but it tends to be higher. Apart from a few specialist examples, such as off-road or winter tyres, all retreaded passenger tyres are speed-rated to at least 112mph (200km/h). 

Before the process begins a strict series of checks is carried out to the carcass to ensure that it has picked up no damage during its time on the vehicle – the slightest issue will see the tyre rejected and sent for recycling. The carcass of the tyre must also be at least as thick as the replacement band that will be applied to it.

No part of a retread is worn – such things are known as part-worn tyres, nothing to do with retreading and a market we would advise readers not to go anywhere near. 

Safety first

As the retreading process re-uses up to 85% of the original tyre, including the expensive woven steel structure, the potential cost savings over manufacturing new tyres are huge. And all this comes with no safety issues, because the part of the tyre that makes contact with the road and thus wears away is the part that’s replaced.

How safe? Well retreads might not be so common these days on cars, but they are routinely used on vehicles that typically put their tyres under much greater stresses – heavy-goods vehicles, buses, and even passenger aircraft.

Retreading is a professional, global industry that is strictly regulated. All UK retreading operators and their processes are certified by the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA). Since 2004, all retreaded tyres sold in the UK have had to meet a United Nations EU compliance document – there are different ones for passenger car and commercial retreaded tyres. Retreaded tyres also all carry identification numbers showing exactly which facility they have come from.

Perhaps the clearest sign that retreading is not a dangerous option is that, in the commercial vehicle market, many original tyre manufacturers carry out the process themselves. For example, Hankook Tyres recently showed off its rebuilt retreading plant in Germany, which has been doubled in size to take its retreading capacity to 100,000 tyres per year.

Michelin has its own UK retreading plant at Stoke-on-Trent and offers substantial support to specialist retreading companies, but again this is principally in the commercial vehicle sector.

Green gains

What finally tips the balance in favour of retreading, however, is the green aspect, as extending tyre life in this way offers massive environmental advantages.

The basic problem is that a used tyre is a very hard thing to recycle. It’s bulky and suitable for not a lot else – you can’t even take it down the tip as tyres have been banned from landfill sites since 2006.

Figures produced by the British Tyre Manufacturers Association (BTMA), show that currently just 15% of UK tyres are re-used by means of retreading. Another 25% go to make rubber crumb, which is used for soft surfaces in such places as children’s playgrounds and in the manufacture of moulded rubber components.

Another 15% of waste tyres are incinerated in the UK as part of the manufacture of cement, while the biggest proportion, 35% are exported to be incinerated elsewhere. Environmental concerns over such exports are rising, both here in the UK and in the countries we export our waste tyres to. So cutting the numbers of waste tyres would be a significant green move, and retreading could be one answer. 

It’s difficult to find constituent figures for car tyre retreading but those for a typical bus or truck tyre are compelling. Around 85% of the original tyre is re-used, the process saving 30kg of rubber – and 30% of a typical truck or bus tyre is natural rubber, classified as an EU critical raw material with future demand likely to outstrip supply.

Each retreaded truck tyre also saves up to 20kg of steel and 60kg of CO2 emissions, while giving the tyre a potential total life of more than 375,000 miles – 15 times around the globe. Imagine the environmental benefits of applying such figures across the billions of car tyres that are replaced with new across the globe…

So, retreading is a good idea? Yes, but that’s where the problems start… One potential issue is some less than enlightened insurers have been known to use the presence of retreaded tyres to invalidate policies, so if you are going to buy such tyres you need to check your insurance allows you to fit them. 

The main problem, however, is likely to be finding such tyres to buy. Doing an online search, for example, will leave you very confused – you won’t find the slightest mention of retreads on the sites of the big car tyre suppliers such as Kwik-Fit, ATS or National Tyres. In fact elsewhere on the net we found more than one multi-outlet supplier providing ‘information’ on retreading clearly designed to sway buyers towards more expensive new tyres.

Retreads tend to be sold by specialist suppliers and finding car tyre suppliers is a challenge as the vast majority of such specialists deal with the commercial vehicle industry where retreads are far more common.

Currently the only guaranteed way for a car owner to make use of the potential benefits of going retreaded appears to require a lot of work – firstly establishing what type of tyres that fit their car will be suitable for retreading, and then once they wear finding a specialist supplier to do the job for them.

Two decades ago, the UK car retread industry was virtually killed off by consumers preferring cheap new tyres from the Far East. In recent years the commercial retread industry has come under similar threat, and as a result the industry has fought back hard, led by such bodies as the BTMA. But all remain focused on the potential benefits for the commercial sector, with the possibilities for the consumer car market ignored.

Until government, the tyre industry and tyre buyers all start seeing the benefits of retreaded tyres, they look set to remain a benefit we largely can’t have.

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.