A rubbery problem – the Australian scrap tyre management challenge

Waste Management Review explores the ongoing issue of scrap tyre stockpiling in Australia and the challenges recyclers face, with insights from regulatory, association, equipment suppliers, product stewardship and recycling stakeholders.

Within the first eight weeks of this year, in the height of a dry summer, Victoria experienced three huge tyre stockpile fires with serious environmental outcomes.

Every year in Australia about 50 million tyres reach end of life.

Hyder Consulting’s 2015 report to track the fate of end-of-life tyres (ELTs) found that of the 51 million tyres generated in the 2013/14 financial year, only around 5 per cent were recycled locally, down from 16 per cent in 2009/10, around 32 per cent were exported for recycling and energy recovery, and the rest were either landfilled, stockpiled, illegally dumped or “lost”.

Since then, Tyre Stewardship Australia (TSA) – the national tyre product stewardship scheme – has been formed to promote sustainable collection and recycling practices, and to explore and support products using recycled ELTs.
The Australian Tyre Recyclers Association (ATRA) has flourished and its members processed approximately 18.5 million equivalent passenger units (EPUs) in 2014/15.

EPAs across the country have put in rules and initiatives to improve tyre storage, to license disposal and recycling facilities, and to safeguard against dumping and dangerous stockpiling.

Manufacturers have designed advanced machinery to process ELTs and turn the material into new products. Innovators have invented new methods of processing ELTs to obtain tyre-derived fuel, carbon and road surfacing materials.

So why are huge scrap tyre stockpiles still prevalent across the country? And why are tyre recycling operations difficult to set up, maintain and make commercially viable?

The numbers don’t stack up

A significant challenge of ELTs is sheer volume. Every minute in Australia around 100 tyres are scrapped. Concurrently, existing stockpiles – legitimate or illegally dumped – are waiting to be processed.

“It’s like a tap that you can’t turn off,” says Matt Genever, TSA Chief Executive.

He says the 50 million ELTs generated each year have an economic value, as someone gets paid to collect them and to do something with them, from disposal to processing.

Using simplistic calculations, Matt notes how the money involved in managing ELTs lures illegitimate operators to offer collection and disposal at low rates before disappearing and leaving a stockpile. Undercutting hinders genuine businesses to deliver sustainable tyre recycling.

Based on an average price of $2 per unit for someone to collect a new ELT, Matt says this means the tyre collection and disposal sector is worth at least $100 million. Working on a cost of $1 a tyre to collect and transport it, that leaves $50 million for the recycling industry. The cost of even a simple “shred and ship” operation adds at least another 50 cents, which would then leave $25 million.

“By the time you’ve picked up a tyre and done something with it, there isn’t much revenue left for the number of recyclers involved, which is why the value of selling into end markets is so important,” says Matt.

The commercial viability with dumped or stockpiled ELTs is more precarious.

“The value of those is lower because they are dirty, have been left for a long period and expensive to take over,” explains Matt. “Someone has taken that $2 that they were paid for collection and disposal and disappeared. That is a much harder economic challenge to solve.”

To read more, see page 26 of the latest edition.