Studies have quantified that the amount of tyres disposed of around the world is between 1 and 1.8 billion each year. This value equates to roughly 2-3% of all collected waste materials. Of those billions of discarded tyres, many of them find themselves in the world’s largest tyre graveyard, located in Al Sulaibiya: a small town in Al Jahra Governorate, Kuwait.
The vast graveyard is estimated to hold 50 millions tyres. And these tyres are from Kuwait and other countries that pay tyre disposal companies to discard tyre waste. Officials in Kuwait estimate that this number has been generated for more than thirty years, and is the result of illegal tyre dumping and a lack of waste planning and management. In addition, the country lacked the infrastructure needed for years in order to utilise waste-tyres for other purposes through recycling.
For decades, this tyre graveyard slipped under the radar, until it gathered global attention for its most influential fire outbreaks that occurred in 2019 and 2021. Whilst not the first fires of their kind, they did spark a global conversation about the consumption and disposal of tyres. In addition, they generated concerns regarding the environmental impact of such a waste site, as well as human and public health concerns. (This is not just a problem unique to Kuwait. A tyre graveyard caught fire in Spain in 2016, forcing 9000 people to evacuate. A fire deliberately ignited at a tyre dump in Wales burned from 1989 to 2004 – the longest-burning tyre fire to date – leaching zinc, chromium, cadmium, and other additives into the ground).
These fires are especially dangerous, as the smoke released is thick, black, and loaded with toxins. When tyres become ablazed they release chemicals and compounds that are harmful to the environment and human health when inhaled. These toxins include carbon monoxide, cyanide, sulphur dioxide, butadiene, and styrene. These chemicals are especially irritating to the respiratory system, and may be linked to disease when exposure is long-term. The combustibility of tyres makes them especially difficult to extinguish once burning, especially in desert heat.
Fires from the tyre graveyard in Kuwait have been spotted in satellite images from space, where the black smoke barreling from the area is easily noticeable. Gusts of wind carry the smoke in all directions, pushing the released chemicals and toxins through the air, where they create dangerous air quality levels for populations in nearby towns and cities. Often, these chemicals become lodged in the environment once the fire and dust settles, where they enter water bodies and have the potential to contaminate soils and crops in areas far from the origin of the fires.
A total of five factories in Kuwait have been granted governmental assistance and permission to receive tyres from the landfill to reduce, recycle, and export the tyres for use and profit. What remains is transported to Salmi, Kuwait, where 52 plants are under construction to recycle tyres, paper, and plastic.
This process takes place as the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, which will wrap up on the 12th of November. The annual conference gathers over 100 countries from around the globe to reach agreements and pledges for the environment. The conference aims to discuss solutions to environmental issues shared between various countries.
Suggested solutions for Kuwait’s tyre supply lies in improved recovery and recycling, innovation using environmentally friendly tyres that require less energy and raw materials to manufacture, reducing our need for tyre landfills.