Stay Updated on Developing Stories

Car tires are disastrous for the environment. This startup wants to be a driving force in fixing the problem

(CNN) Every time a driver brakes, accelerates, or turns a corner, their car tires wear down a little. Most car owners replace their tires every five or so years because of this normal wear and tear — but the environmental consequences are extreme.

Around 6.1 million metric tons of tire dust end up in our atmosphere and waterways annually. It's one of the most common microplastic pollutants in our oceans -- and it's even been found in remote places like the Arctic.

Now a London-based startup has come up with a solution to stop tire dust in its tracks. The Tyre Collective has created a wheel-mounted device that collects the tiny particles on electrostatically charged copper plates.

"For years we've been so focused on tailpipe emissions, but we're starting to look at other sources of pollution," says Siobhan Anderson, chief scientific officer and co-founder of The Tyre Collective. "We all know that tires wear down, but no one ever really thinks about where that material goes -- and it's going into our air and water."

Anderson hopes The Tyre Collective's patented device, which won a James Dyson Award in 2020, will tackle this pollution at its source.

Where the rubber meets the road

The Tyre Collective began as a student project in 2020, while the four founders were pursuing master's degrees in Innovation Design Engineering, run jointly by Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art. With a background in biology, Anderson says she has always had an interest in the environment and microplastics, and that's how she came across the little-known problem of tire dust.

Non-exhaust emissions, which include tire, brake and road surface wear, account for 90% of all particulate emissions from vehicles. The microplastics from tire dust contribute to dangerous PM2.5 pollution -- particles that are so small they can be inhaled and cause respiratory health issues.

To visualize the scale of the problem, the group calculated how much tire dust a single London bus produces each day, and found it was equivalent to the size of a grapefruit.

Next the team had to work out how to stop bits of tire flying onto the road and into the air.

"We were trying out a bunch of different methods to collect it, from vacuuming to using sticky materials," says Anderson. She says they had a "lightbulb moment" when they realized the particles have an electrostatic charge.

The team visualized the problem by calculating the amount of tire dust produced by London buses, conventional cars and electric vehicles.

In the same way that rubbing a balloon on a jumper picks up fluff, The Tyre Collective's device, which is powered by the car's alternator, uses a copper plate to create an electric field that attracts the tire dust. "Then, we're able to clean off the plates and put it into a storage canister," says Anderson.

The team built a prototype to prove the core technology, which had its first road test last year in collaboration with automotive company Geely Auto Group, enabling the group to adapt and improve it for the real-world environment, says Anderson.

A growing problem

The push to reduce particulate emissions is even more important as the world transitions to electric vehicles (EVs).

Research from Emissions Analytics shows that particulate mass emissions from tire wear is thousands of times greater than those from tailpipes, which have been vastly reduced in recent years by high-efficiency exhaust filters.

So while electric vehicles cut carbon emissions, they are still contributing to the growing problem of non-exhaust emissions, says Lisa Erdle, director of research and innovation for The 5 Gyres Institute, which researches plastic pollution in the seas.

The Tyre Collective's device had its first road test last year.

In general, electric vehicles are heavier than equivalent conventional cars, so "so this is not a problem that is going to go away," says Erdle.

A report from the OECD highlights that heavier EVs emit more PM2.5 particles than conventional cars, while lighter EVs emit slightly less -- so as more EVs hit the road, non-exhaust emissions are expected to increase 52.4% by 2030.

"If this issue goes unchecked, we'll see an accumulation of tire dust in the environment," says Erdle, adding that the toxic chemicals in tires are negatively impacting wildlife, the environment and human health. While there isn't one "silver bullet," Erdle says a suite of measures, including toxic chemical bans or material redesigns, could help. Tire companies are aware of this issue and interested in innovating, but need pressure from consumers or legislation to push them into action, she adds.

Anderson says that the rubber captured could be upcycled into new products, including tires.

The automotive industry has been receptive to The Tyre Collective's device, says Anderson. After last year's road tests, the company was able to show car and tire manufacturers that the device was "real and working," she says.

"We've received a lot of interest to do the next stage of pilots," says Anderson.

Reinventing the wheel

The Tyre Collective is currently conducting a three-month trial with Zhero, a London-based company offering low-emission and sustainable logistics services.

"When we realized that there was a device in development that could help reduce and collect those emissions, we knew we wanted to be a part of that process," says Ollie King, cofounder of Zhero, adding that he hopes it will improve human health nationwide and, eventually, globally.

Anderson says the trial will help the team gather more data about the device's efficiency. In the lab, it captures around 60% of airborne particles, so the team are currently exploring ways to fine-tune the electrostatics, device placement on the car, and the airflow.

The canisters will be emptied monthly by technicians at garages. Anderson says the team is also looking into options for upcycling the small rubber particles into new tires, shoe soles, or rubber panels.

The Tyre Collective are now testing the device in collaboration with Zhero, a London-based logistics company.

The Tyre Collective hopes to soft-launch its product in 2024, and says it will focus its efforts on retrofitting large fleet vehicles and delivery vans, which have a regular maintenance schedule making it easier to integrate, clean and monitor the tech, says Anderson.

Ultimately, Anderson hopes that all cars will be automatically fitted with a device like theirs before they hit the road.

"What we're talking about here is a global scale problem. And it's going to require everyone to be aware of that and also contribute to implementing the solution."