It’s inevitable. No matter how careful I am to avoid shattered bottles, potholes, or excessively large sidewalk curbs, eventually my tires will spring a leak. Maybe it’s a catastrophic blowout mid-ride, or one too many mysterious morning flats that signal the death of a tube. Replacing an irreparably damaged tube is easy and cheap, but in a world that’s becoming increasingly aware of irresponsible waste, how can we be sure that the old tubes are properly recycled?
Can you recycle bike tires and tubes? No, bicycle tires and tubes cannot be placed in the recycling bin at the curb unless your local waste management service specifies that they accept rubber. With this said, there are other alternatives so that you can reuse and recycle bicycle tires and tubes.
If a bicycle tube is too damaged or worn for a patch, the simplest way to recycle it is to either repurpose it at home, or bring it into a local bike shop that collects them for repurposing.
Their durability and elasticity lend themselves to a number of uses: tie downs, webbing for furniture or shelves, handlebar wrappings, or crafts. You can try these yourself, or drop them off with a bike shop or retailer that will give them a second life. They should NOT go into the recycling can, unless your waste management service clearly states that they accept rubber products.
Why You Can’t Toss Bicycle Tubes into the Recycling Bin
You may be wondering why you can’t just throw tubing in the trash or recycling bin. Tubing is made from butyl rubber, a plastic derived from petroleum rather than tree rubber for durability, as well as chemical additives that give the rubber additional properties like flexibility.
Unfortunately, most municipal recycling can only handle items that are made up of a pure substance, so the additives make conventional recycling too complicated. Putting items that don’t belong in the recycling bin creates a huge burden on the sorting process, and can actually lead to perfectly recyclable items being sent to the landfill as a result.
Remember Your R’s – Reduce Reuse Recycle
Butyl rubber, like that used in tires and tubing, is a synthetic plastic. Synthetics won’t biodegrade, but rather break down into smaller and smaller particles called microplastics over time. Microplastics are BAD, they get into soil and water and absorbed up the food chain. So minimizing the amount we create and that could end up as microplastics is very important, and we can do that through the three R’s: reducing, reusing, and recycling.
Reducing the amount of new tubes that get used up conserves resources and reduces the amount of plastic that ends up out in the world. For tubes that can no longer be patched, reusing, or repurposing them for a new function will keep them out of landfills longer and again, reduces the amount of petroleum resources that are used up as well as the amount of plastics created.
Finally, when the repurposed tubing has reached the end of its usefulness, it can be recycled into raw materials for use in new rubber products. However, this final recycling process produces a lot of toxic gases, requires a significant amount of energy, and only a fraction of the tube’s mass makes it into a new rubber product, so this really is a last resort.
What about bike tires?
Bike tires themselves, while they last a lot longer than tubes, eventually need to be recycled too. Not only is the rubber mixed with all the additives that tubes are, they are also reinforced with layers of several different types of material. They aren’t just pure rubber.
While there are fancier tubeless tires and tubular sewn tires, most standard tires meant for housing an inner inflated tube all have the same structure- beading along the wheel rims that hold the tire in place, a woven fabric base layer, and an outer cubber coating with tread to grip the road. All three of these materials lend themselves to great uses in a second life; recycling them conserves valuable resources and provides great materials for innovative projects like school race tracks, gym pads, and construction materials.
Creative Ways to Reuse Bike Tires & Tubes
If you’re feeling crafty and resourceful, there are a lot of household items that can be improved or built from old tubes and tires.
Tie-downs/straps: This is the simplest use. Nothing more than trimming and tying required! They work just as good as bungee cords for securing a milkcrate to the back of a bike, or fastening supplied for travel. If the wind is wreaking havoc in your yard, secure young saplings, tarps, or awnings with tough durable tubes instead of plastic tie downs.
Seating: Give new life to sun-worn patio furniture with a woven tube seat! The plastic netting or straps that can is so commonly used in outdoor furniture ironically becomes brittle and broken with sun exposure. You can replace it though, by ripping out all the worn seating and weaving a simple netting from old tubes. They are stretchy enough to be comfortable, and strong enough to handle repeated use.
Shelving: Using the same method for creating seating above, you can weave shelving from bicycle tubes. A simple rectangle frame can be upcycled from pipes, which will hold the webbing of woven tubes that will act as the shelf surface.
Handlebar Grips: Cut the tubes open into one long rectangular strip, and wrap them tightly over bare handlebars for a new grippy surface.
Super tires: The tread of old worn tires can be cut out and glued into the inside of new tires along the center to give them a little extra durability.
Play structures: Ever play on an old car tire swing as a child? You can create a similar experience with bike tires. They will be more flexible than a car tire, and if they are especially worn, you may want to bind multiple tires together to make a thicker ring. Fasten to your favorite tree with a rope and voila! Tires can also be laid together in a square cross pattern, one tire in the center with tires fastened at the top, bottom, and sides. Then repeat to make a ladder like structure that can be a great addition to a climbing tree or fort.
Where to Take Your Bicycle Tubes and Tires to be Recycle
If you’re not feeling crafty and just need the old tubes and tires out of your house, there are plenty of places that are happy to take them for you!
Municipal waste management: If you live in a big municipality, it’s possible that your local waste management and recycling service does accept tires and or tubes. Be sure to check their website first to clarify though. They may have special pickup or drop off instructions, or stipulations such as no slimed tires, etc. Remember, improper recycling is worse than not recycling at all because it ruins the recycling process. If you live somewhere with smaller facilities though, this may not be an option.
Local bike shops: Check with the bike retailers in your town, from stores as big as REI to your mom and pop bike store. Many will have take back programs for old tubes and tires. Some may charge a small processing fee but it’s usually quite small. Stop by or call for their services.
Car tire shops: A lot of commercial recyclers will accept bike tires with care tires. Check with your local tire company to see if they’ll take your old ones.
Mail in programs: If there aren’t any places nearby that will accept your old tubes and tires, you can still recycle them by mailing them to a company that will reuse them, and some will even make it worth your time:
Alchemy Goods is a company that makes amazing products like bags, wallets, and belts from old tubing. You can mail in your own old tubes (not tires). I received their “Franklin Wallet” two years ago for Christmas, and have been using it ever since. Simple, functional, and good for the planet!
Bikes Not Bombs is a nonprofit that refurbishes old supplies to provide bikes to people in developing countries that need them. Even old tires or tubes with holes, as long as they’re not shredded they can be used by this great organization!
GreenGuru is another company that creates awesome products from old bike tires (and climbing ropes and wetsuits fyi). They accept bike tubes that haven’t been slimed or are thorn resistant.
These are just some of the larger recyclers that exist in the US. It’s always worth searching for businesses or local charities in your area that may want them, too.