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Are Tubolito's super lightweight inner tubes the world’s most sustainable?

We speak with innovative inner tube manufacturer Tubolito and find out how its products’ unique characteristics are helping to put the ‘cycling’ into recycling

Last year we looked at young inner tube brand Tubolito and found out how the company’s clever use of thermoplastic polyurethane – TPU – was inspired by Tubolito’s founders’ previous careers making speakers for mobile phones. 

As keen cyclists, they recognised this high-performance material could have applications away from smart devices and – following a long period of research and development – they managed to create a viable inner tube from it. Now, near company headquarters in Austria, Tubolito manufactures a wide range of TPU inner tubes that are ultra-lightweight and super-resistant to punctures.

But, as a material, TPU has another very important quality: it is easily recyclable. 

So we sat down with Tubolito’s sustainability lead, Peter Richter, to find out how the company is now taking responsibility for its old used products and helping to promote sustainability with a unique recycling scheme. So I suppose the first question is: why is Tubolito interested in sustainability?

PR: Everybody involved in Tubolito is a cyclist and in our personal lives we are all very interested in nature, the environment, and sustainability.

Of course, because our product is made from a form of plastic, we are also very aware of the connotations that people have with the word 'plastic'. The word plastic doesn’t necessarily connect people with the idea of sustainability. But it’s a slightly different case with TPU because this is a completely recyclable form of plastic. 

So we think it’s important to communicate what kind of plastic we use, the unique characteristics of it, and why it is better to use TPU than other plastics or even other traditional inner tube materials.

Tubolito CO2 footprint

What do you mean by that? 

People think of plastic as something that’s bad, but it depends on the situation. For example, it's important to always ask the question: what is it that you are replacing with plastic?

In our case, we use TPU plastic instead of rubber inner tubes, and rubber itself is not very environmentally friendly. People don’t necessarily think of that. I’ve never heard of anybody talk about the problems associated with butyl, but it’s actually less environmentally friendly than TPU plastic.

If you’d asked me about this before I joined Tubolito, I would have thought the same: plastic is problematic. But the story is a bit more complicated than people are perhaps aware of.

So what steps does Tubolito take towards sustainability?

One of the first steps is that far less energy and fewer resources are used in the production of TPU. For example, TPU requires a lot less water than manufacturing latex tubes. 

One of the great benefits of our material is that it is very light and can be packaged small, so when it comes to transportation, we can fit a lot more of our tubes into the same space compared to standard tubes. That means less carbon output just in terms of shipping the product.

We’ve taken that one step further. Our standard Tubolito inner tubes are already lighter and pack smaller than traditional tubes but then we also have our S-Tubo range, which uses our superlight technology. We realised that with S-Tubo products we could reduce the packaging further and use really small boxes. That means we can get a lot more products on the same size pallet and it also reduces the amount of resources – cardboard – that is needed for the packaging as well. 

Tubolito water usage

When you started making Tubolito tubes out of TPU, was it done with recycling or sustainability in mind?

I think, to be honest, the sustainability benefits are more of a happy accident. TPU was used because of the benefits it has in terms of its characteristics when making inner tubes. For example, it results in fewer punctures. But then I suppose that also helps with sustainability because you don’t have to replace Tubolito tubes as often.

You can’t get away from the fact that even Tubolito tubes have to be replaced eventually, though, but you’ve come up with a recycling solution for that. Can you explain how that works? 

This was something that we started in 2023. We were thinking about when a Tubolito tube comes to the end of its life and you have to dispose of it. What normally happens is that, when you dispose of an inner tube, it might get burned to be used for heating or power generation, but the material doesn’t re-enter any kind of circular lifecycle. 

We knew TPU could be recycled, but it took us a year and a half to figure out the logistics around how to do it. We didn’t want to tell our customers to send their old tubes back to us because, suddenly, we’d have a lot more packages being shipped around the world and that would then create its own CO2 footprint. It would end up being no better than just throwing it away. 

So, starting in Austria and Germany, we have worked with selected bicycle shops where customers are able to bring back their old Tubolito inner tubes. The shops then collect these in a big paper bag and, when the bag is full, they send it to us. We then work with a third-party company to recycle the TPU. 

With the shop’s next Tubolito order, we send a new empty replacement recycling bag. So we use logistics already place and avoid requiring any extra deliveries.

Tubolito recycling sack

How exactly is the TPU then recycled?

The reprocessing company cleans the tubes first, because they’re dirty having been used and it’s very important that you have as clean as possible TPU in the recycling process. Then they basically cut it into really small parts and reprocess it into what looks like little beans or pellets. These pellets are bought by manufacturers and can then be melted to make other TPU products. 

The only slight downside is colouring. When TPU is recycled, it naturally ends up being a fairly unattractive brown colour because all the previous colours get combined, so the reprocessing companies tend to colour it black to make it more appealing. 

In our case, we require transparent pellets, and then we use just a couple of percent of orange pellets to give Tubolito tubes their distinctive orange colour. So we don’t re-use the recycled TPU yet but we have started experimenting with it. We need to be sure it is suitable: we require high-quality material that will retain air. 

But manufacturers of other TPU products – soles for shoes or watering cans, for example – are very happy to use recycled pellets.

Tubo-Saddle bag

Are there any other steps that Tubolito is taking towards sustainability?

In the last month, we just launched our first product made from production leftovers. Together with EMMAKER, we have developed the Tubo-Saddle bag, which has enough room for an S-Tubo spare tube with enough space for a CO2 cartridge and tyre levers. Naturally, it comes in Tubolito orange and we are particularly proud of the fact that it is one of the lightest saddlebags on the market, weighing in at around 28g.

Beyond that, we are also now looking towards using green power with our production processes. All of our tubes are manufactured here in Austria. That means we keep a very close eye on our production systems and we can experiment with new products. It’s a big advantage having production so close because if we have a new idea, we can visit the production facility and try things out. 

But it also means that the carbon generated in shipping along the supply chain is reduced – we’re not shipping in products manufactured in the Far East, for example. So, even though our initial goal was to prioritise manufacturing high-quality products, we’ve been very lucky that a knock-on effect of that has helped us to really make inner tubes a little more sustainable.

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