By Peter Taylor
It is sad to note that tyre-recycling business is sleep-walking into a world of narrowing opportunities and no one, least of all the new tyre manufacturers, seem to care
Combination of factors affecting our capacity to deal with all our old tyres is starting to cause concern. Traditional disposal routes like cement kilns have other perhaps more profitable burn options, even if they still have the wherewithal to take tyres while export then is also becoming more difficult. This is a picture which is repeating itself across Europe and way beyond.
A number of factors are in play and not just the ability or willingness of cement kilns to take more tyres. Export shipping costs between W. Europe and Asia almost doubled in 2016 while at the same time local availability of waste tyres has increased everywhere. Meanwhile, we are making the progress needed to ensure that rubber asphalt becomes an important mainstream use for tyre-derived granulate. More worrying still are the incessant claims from some quarters that TD granulate used as infill in sports pitches or play surfaces is a potential carcinogen despite an almost total lack of evidence to support the assertion. So insistent are such claims that one is led to suspect that vested interests are at play. A further list of chemicals commonly used in tyre manufacturing has now been flagged up by Germany as being ‘of concern’ so ensuring that this particular debate will run and run. What a pity! The inevitable consequences will be that investment in granulate will shrink and more useful processing capacity lost that will not easily be replaced.
If all this sounds a tad pessimistic so it should, the business of tyre-recycling is sleep-walking into a world of narrowing opportunities and no-one, least of all our new tyre manufacturers, seem to care.
Why is it we read so much creative PR stories of how new tyres are being developed with ever better rolling resistance (economy) and using ever more exotic alternatives to natural rubber and other materials that go into tyres but which do virtually nothing to facilitate true recyclability. Perhaps much sooner rather than later this will change.
Playing the Game
Everywhere, the options of what to do with our waste’ tyres are diminishing as annual volumes (known as arisings) increase. Right now, freight rates ex Europe are rising and favoured destinations for our waste rubber such as the Indian sub-continent and East Asia have only a limited appetite for more. Sadly, the export of tyre waste, often at very low cost, has itself undermined preferred market solutions such as granulation and incineration by cement kilns. The unnerving truth is that adequate new uses for tyre-derived and recyclate are just not coming along as quickly as we would like.
As the likelihood of a capacity crunch edges closer, the way we handle our waste will come under increasing scrutiny as current market models fail to deal with the problem. In a number of European states quite ridged schemes exist with the express aim of taking care, or even ownership of the problem and they are funded by consumers or manufacturers to helping.
Do just that, but how effective are they?
Typically, manufacturers or consumers pay a ‘recycling’ fee; but what actually happens to the money? In some EU-member States, especially the smaller ones, this is often no more than a logistics charge that actually does no more than cover the cost of moving on their waste tyres to somewhere else. Neither ideal, nor sustainable; but many of our industry leaders appear quite content with the situation.
Looking beyond all of this the bigger question perhaps is what happens when disposal (sorry, recycling) routes tighten as they inevitably will. The answer, of course, is further market distortion.
We in Europe have long been subject to Producer Responsibility in its various forms which have been interpreted and imposed in various forms, not all of which pass the transparency test. Some are short of being market-friendly which is one reason why tyre recycling as an industry in its own right has shown such small progress on our continent.
The obvious danger now is that as the market tightens more surreptitious ways will be found to facilitate disposal possibly through a misuse of the mandatory recycling charges in countries favouring these. Such behaviour is not difficult and may already be happening; at least one European country so thought to exporting tyre-derived granulate well below market rates, there may well be more. I wager this subject will soon assume an inter-governmental dimension.
Support for retreading
In what is being portrayed a sign of hope for retreading, the European Commission has proposed a change of emphasis in the way it approaches anti-dumping and unfair subsidy rules. The Commission is proposing a new way of assessing dumping on imports from countries where ‘for example’ there is known clear over capacity.
This is quite a change of direction for the European Union and for the Commission who have tended to remain steadfastly ‘Olympian’ in these matters; but is it China’s relentless undercutting of European steel makers that has prompted this shift? Now the Commission is stating that ‘only fair trade is really free trade’.
Europe’s truck tyre retreaders spot a ray of hope here. They have long complained that very cheap first life China-made truck tyres are damaging the market for quality retreads. Furthermore, it is alleged that very few of these China-made products are retreadable so prematurely contributing to Europe’s scrap tyre mountain and detracting from our recycling priorities.
The real driver in all this though is jobs, or rather prospect of job losses which have been particularly acute in the European steel industry. But steel is not alone in its problems, tyres and many other product streams are crying foul and Europe’s governments have been calling for resolute action. That action may now be on its way at last.