Melbourne-based Green Distillation Technologies (GDT) has pioneered a new way to recycle tyres, which has led to international recognition and exposure to new markets.
Not only was Thomas Edison a great inventor, but the American also had an aptitude for transferring technology from the laboratory to the market place. In addition to inventing a sustainable electric light bulb in the 1870s, he also designed the electric system for people to have light bulbs working in their homes.
More than 130 years later, Green Distillation Technologies (GDT) from Melbourne has become the first Australian company to win an Edison Award for innovation for its technology in recovering energy from tyres. Its directors are following in Edison’s footsteps in securing markets for both GDT’s recovered products and implementing the technology for use in other territories.
GDT received the bronze medal for innovation in the ‘Resource Management & Renewable Resources’ category at the Edison Awards, held in New York this past April. The prize was for its destructive distillation technology, which Technical Director Denis Randall pioneered. The process uses controlled heat to reduce whole tyres to their original elements. The reformed gases are distilled and collected as an oil. The carbon is retrieved as a high-purity powder, while the steel does not get hot enough to melt, so it can be collected clean and unchanged.
Although other companies recover products from end-of-life tyres, the GDT process is unique because it can process tyres whole – not crumbed or broken down. Most of the material is fully recovered and the entire process is emission-free.
Denis had been working in this area for 25 years. He has studied hydrocarbon products, how to process them to provide oil and carbon, and has undertaken experimental work on agricultural products and tyres. It took a chance meeting with Craig Dunn, now GDT Chief Executive, for him to find a commercial channel to apply his research.
“A friend introduced Denis to me in 2009,” says Craig. “I’d been aware of his work and the concept appealed to me. I had a business partner, so we decided to invest some money to test the process. If it tested successfully, we would look to commercialise it. When we agreed to work together, we made a commercial decision to focus on processing tyres.”
The safe and legal disposal of tyres is a major environmental issue for Australia, where 20 million tyres from the commercial road transport and mining sectors reach end of life each year.
Tyres are so robust that it can take 500 years for them to start to even start to degrade. Many are stockpiled or illegally dumped, which can cause air, water and ground pollution. If exported to countries like China, they are burned in brick and cement kilns, causing pollution.
Craig and his investors could see the commercial and environmental opportunity of taking the problem out of the collectors’ hands and finding markets for the recovered products. He attributes the timing of starting the company as significant to being able to pursue building a business around resource recovery in end-of-life tyres.
“At the time, there was a growing interest in renewable energy and Australia now has more state regulation around waste management, especially for tyre disposal. And over the past 25 years, Denis had perfected the various techniques he was using,” explains Craig.
Craig, his business partner Trevor Bayley (now Chief Operating Officer) and Denis formally came together as GDT in 2009, establishing an office in Melbourne. Their first step was building a small, laboratory-type plant in Warren, New South Wales, where the local council was keen to support their enterprise and made land available near the racecourse.
“After creating the plant and undertaking testing, Denis’s team was able to produce carbon and hydrocarbon gas,” says Craig. “They sent these off for independent testing. When the results came back, they showed that they were viable products.”
Buoyed by this initial success, GDT needed a much larger experimental plant and was fortunate to be supported by Warren Shire Council.
“The council was keen for us to adopt Warren as the site for the plant and assisted us in finding suitable land,” explains Craig. “It sub-divided its Ewenmar landfill site to make land available for us. They helped us with building approvals and the administration side to make the project work.”
The first small plant was built to hone the technology. After this, they were ready to start processing car tyres. In 2010, they built the Ned plant, so named because it resembled Ned Kelly’s helmet. Next, GDT constructed a larger commercial plant, called the Alpha Module, which could handle all road transport tyres. The company started processing there in March 2012.
Businesses soon started transporting their tyres to the plant in Warren by road. GDT addressed concerns from the local community about the increased traffic and the plant.
“We engaged with local residents on a regular basis,” says Craig. “We invited them to several open days to see the plant operate: firstly with the Ned plant and then the Alpha Module. We got enormous acceptance from the community of Warren, I think because with the technology advances happening there, it’s going to make it a very unique place and put it on the map.”
Businesses and councils that needed to dispose of tyres started to hear about GDT’s facility and enquire about processing.
“We now get around five calls a week from trucking companies, councils and collectors asking if we can take more tyres. Obtaining the tyres isn’t the difficult part. They bring the tyres to our plant and pay us $150 a tonne, which is a cheap way for them to dispose of the tyres they’ve amassed,” says Craig.
GDT is now completing its first full commercial-scale plant in Warren, which will run seven days a week. It will be capable of handling 19,000 tonnes of tyres a year – that’s about 650,000 tyres.
This will be known as the Paul McKay Plant, named after one of GDT’s employees, who sadly passed away in January due to illness. Paul started with GDT in its infancy in 2009. “He made a big contribution towards our work,” says Craig. “It feels right to honour his memory in this way.”
GDT is aware of a wide problem with tyre disposal nationally because of the size of Australia. Some collection sites, especially for truck and mining vehicle tyres, are in remote locations. This makes it costly and onerous to transport them for processing. As a result, GDT is in discussions with one of the largest managers of mining tyres, based in Western Australia, about building a plant to process car, truck and mining tyres.
“That’s going very positively, and if it goes ahead, we would have a plant there within 18 months,” Craig says.
Selling the By-Products
The next step for GDT, after building a commercial-scale facility, has been to find a market for its recovered products. Carbon, steel and oil are valuable commodities. Manufacturers can use the oil in stationary engines. It can also be used for heating or further refined as aviation fuel. Steel is sought after in many industries, while carbon can be used in a number of industrial processes and consumer products.
“The response to our work has been growing in enthusiasm. Everybody wants to be seen to be using some sort of renewable fuel, so demand for that has increased since we first started,” Craig explains.
GDT has several customers for its oil, primarily Southern Oil, an oil recycler. It has an agent in Japan, who takes the steel and sells it back to tyre manufacturers. The company is also in talks with the SMaRT Centre at the University of New South Wales about using its carbon for steel manufacture.
Although GDT’s customer base is growing, Craig would like to see improved regulation across Australia for recycling end-of-life tyres and encouraging industry to use renewable products. Until this happens, GDT has been looking internationally for future production and distribution opportunities.
“The interest we have in our work in the United States, Thailand and Japan far exceeds what happens here. Australia is a bit behind in encouraging renewable energy,” says Craig. “We would like to see support for renewable fuels, and a plan and regulation around carbon footprint. We take an international view. We can see that if Australia doesn’t move in this direction, and meet the requirements of other countries, it’s going to be penalised in the future on its exports.”
GDT sees Australia’s individual state laws, coupled with a lack of commitment from manufacturers and importers, as hindering the impetus for resource recovery projects and renewable energy. Craig advocates that tyre companies need to take responsibility for the product and waste they create. They could also use recovered materials, as carbon needs to be added to natural rubber to create the strength and rigidity required in tyres.
“Tyre manufacturers taking product back for the tyre-making process would be a big step forward,” he says. “We’ve been engaging with Goodyear and its research facility in Europe to try and get our recovered carbon product back into tyres.”
Craig also says it’s time to rethink about how tyre disposal is paid for in Australia, as this isn’t covered in the Tyre Stewardship levy.
“Currently, consumers pay about $4 to dispose a tyre, but there is no transparency about what happens to the recycling fee collected, leading to stockpiling of the end-of-life tyres,” Craig explains.
“The perfect situation would be a recycling fee at the start of a tyre’s life – between $1.50 and $2 a tyre. This should be payable by manufacturers when tyres are brought into the country, then included in the price for the consumer, who wouldn’t have to pay an additional fee on replacement. If that figure were collected upfront, tyres would be recycled properly,” he adds.
The Future, at Home and Overseas
GDT sees itself as having a bigger part to play in Australia’s waste recovery industry in the future, as regulation and management around the treatment of waste increases. Although it is concentrating on tyres at the moment, its plant is capable of processing agricultural organic waste. The team has a genuine zeal for recycling and reusing waste resources.
“We believe all waste should be recycled properly and there should be incentives to encourage that,” says Craig. “Many councils are adopting policies to reduce landfill. That’s a very positive direction, which we believe will increase in the future.”
GDT’s recent recognition at the Edison Awards has opened more doors internationally, for both its products and the potential to expand its plants. It plans to build, own and operate 30 plants across the US, with an eye on pushing into Canada afterwards.
“The interest in the US is enormous. It produces 290 million end-of-life tyres each year, and it’s very advanced in terms of waste management and renewable energy. The US is a big focus for us, perhaps more so than Australia,” says Craig.
GDT is also in talks with businesses in Japan, another lucrative market due to its heavy regulation for the management of end-of-life tyres. Recently, GDT secured approval to build a plant in Bangkok, Thailand, following a three-year process.
Amid this optimism for growing GDT’s business, Craig and his fellow directors remain focused on the business’s general purpose.
“It’s a feel-good story… We’re taking a waste stream and disposing of it in a real sense, and creating renewable products in oil, carbon and steel,” Craig says. “We’ve come a long way and there’s exciting commercial opportunity in the future.”