Editor's choice
20 Apr 18

Michelin is on the road to sustainability

Tyres are a vital part of a car. Much attention is paid these days to elements such as exhaust emissions, connectivity, driver aids and the rest, but the fact remains that in any car, from the fastest to the slowest, and including those that drive themselves, a few square centimetres of rubber are all that actually connect us to the road.

Tyres are not, at first sight, the most environmentally-friendly of components, but as Nicolas Beaumont (pictured), Group Director, Sustainable Development and Mobility for Michelin explains, his company is putting huge efforts into making them exactly that. 

First of all, what is the overall philosophy of Michelin in terms of sustainability?

The purpose statement of Michelin is a ‘Better Way Forward’. So what we are looking to offer is better sustainable mobility. And what we mean by sustainable is Green (good for the environment), Accessible, Efficient and Safe. These are the four pillars of sustainable mobility. And on top of these are the three aspects of sustainable development: environmental, social and societal. So the way we look at sustainable development is sustainable mobility for our customers (external) and sustainable development as a company (internal). 

Tell us about the use of natural and green resources to make your products?

There are also two aspects to this. There are the materials which go into making the tyre, and there is the manufacturing process. There is obviously a lot of natural rubber which goes into a tyre, so the question then arises as to how you manage the large plantations. We have always concentrated on making this ‘agricultural’ part of the process sustainable. We have 9,000 hectares in Bahia in Brazil. Of these there are 3,000 hectares which we use to create an ecological reserve in which we enrich and protect the biodiversity through the planting of 100,000 trees, 1,000 hectares of which are used to look at new types of trees which are more resistant to diseases or bacteria. The final 5,000 hectares are used to work on sustainable plantation, where we plant rubber trees and at the same time cocoa trees and banana trees in order to enhance economic development of local populations. This is for a number of reasons: firstly because it enriches the soil through not having a mono-culture, which is good, and secondly for social reasons because it takes around seven years for the rubber tree to come to the point where it produces latex. So the question is what to do with the workforce during this period? Banana trees give you bananas after a year, and cocoa trees give coconuts after three years. So this gives local populations revenues.

We also work together with WWF. We have a major action in Indonesia to develop sustainable plantations there. This is the second thing we are doing with WWF. We are also working with the tyre manufacturers’ organisation called TIP, to try and persuade everyone to move towards sustainable agriculture for everything to do with rubber.

What about your own suppliers?

Besides looking at what goes into the tyre, we look at our suppliers and we ask our key suppliers to provide their carbon footprint. This is within the context of the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) which is a non-profit organisation working for institutional investors. This year will see this concept extended to the CDP Supply Chain, and we are asking our main suppliers to take part. In this way we are moving the entire supply chain towards sustainability.

That all involves manufacture. Do you do anything about recycling the tyres?

We have bought a company called Lehigh Technologies. This company can manufacture MRP (micronised rubber powder) from old tyres, which enables us to recycle parts of the old tyre directly back into a brand-new tyre. Lehigh can deal with highly technical rubber compound particles. This process is important because using too much recycled material in the tyre has a direct impact on wear. If this is not properly calculated, the reduced wear negates the positive aspect of the production recycling. We find that the limit in order to have an environmental advantage is not more than 10% of recycled material in a new tyre. To use an example, if you put 20% of recycled material into a tyre, but you lose 30% of the tyre life, you have done nothing at all for the environment. Lehigh enables us to recycle material while keeping the long-lasting performance characteristics of our tyres, and for us this is key.

Can you tell us a little about the manufacturing process itself in terms of being environmentally-friendly?

Respect for the environment is one of Michelin’s five core values, as expressed in 2002 in the Michelin Performance and Responsibility Charter.

Since the 2000s, Michelin has been leading a continuous improvement process of its manufacturing sites based on an Environmental Management System whereby 100% of production is in plants certified ISO 14001 and on performance improvement targets measured with a Group-wide indicator, the Michelin Environmental Footprint (MEF).

Implemented in 2005, the MEF measures six key impacts of the production process: energy consumption, water withdrawals, CO2 emissions, volatile organic compound emissions, amount of waste generated and amount of waste landfilled (i.e. not recovered or reused). Improvements are planned, driven and tracked at every level, from the shop floor to the boardroom. The MEF is included in the Group’s balanced scorecard and is one of the eight strategic indicators that every plant must track to measure its operational excellence.

Progress has been significant. In 2005, the MEF composite indicator was set at a base of 100. By 2010 the MEF was reduced to 70, and by 2017 to just under 53. The target for 2020 is to reduce the MEF to 50, in other words a 50% reduction in the Group’s environmental footprint over 15 years.

In 2017, to drive faster progress and prepare for the long term, four MEF programs (Volatile Organic Compounds, Waste, Energy/CO2 and Water) were created, each with two objectives: to secure the achievement of the MEF 2020 target, in particular by sharing best practices, and to prepare for the future by defining ambitious improvement targets for 2050, as well as effective intermediate milestones.

Are tyres involved in the emerging connectivity and technology domains?

Tyres of course have pressure sensors, but Michelin as a group is also working on the connected tyre. The idea behind the connected tyre is that you get data about tyre/road interaction, and thanks to this data which involves grip, temperature, pressure, level of wear, it is possible to optimise the safety of the driver, which is part of sustainability, and to improve fuel consumption, CO2 emissions and ensure that our tyres are used up to their legal wear limit. Driving style can be optimised, and this is important because driving style is the key aspect which affects fuel consumption. Rolling resistance is another aspect, and we have committed to reducing the rolling resistance of our tyres by 20% by 2030. We help truck fleets to improve fuel consumption for example, by training drivers about different surfaces, by checking the trucks properly, by correctly managing the tyres. 

Can you tell us a little more about long-lasting performance and tyre wear?

As a tyre wears, its tread depth reduces. Public authorities make it mandatory to change tyres when the tread depth has been worn down to 1.6mm. Changing tyres when the tread depth is 3mm does not guarantee greater safety, and there is currently no study establishing a direct link between accidents and tread depth. A tyre’s long-term safety performance therefore depends on the materials used, the tyre’s architecture and the tread. 

Moreover, today’s technology makes it possible to provide a high level of grip until the tire’s wear limit is reached. In fact, changing tires when the tread depth is 3mm rather than 1.6mm would result in 400 million additional tyres being used a year worldwide, i.e. 35 million tons of additional CO2 emissions every year - which equates to the CO2 emissions generated by a city like New York over 6 months – which could be avoided.

Image: a plantation in Brazil

Authored by: Tim Harrup