12 September 2006
Unsightly and unhealthy tyre waste is all around us, yet we still falter over plans to clear the ever-growing heaps. As a nation that loves cars, we inevitably discard huge heaps of old tyres. Unfortunately, very few of them are recycled into things like rubber asphalt, reclaimed rubber and spongy flooring; most end up as eyesores and pest-breeding grounds.
The irony of it all is that at least two companies have use for old tyres and in large amounts too, but they are getting the stuff from abroad instead of using what we ourselves discard.
Lafarge Malayan Cement is shipping in shredded tyres from Singapore to fuel its cement kiln in Langkawi, while Advanced Pyrotech will process waste tyres from Japan into oil, steel and carbon black when its pyrolisis plant comes up next year.
Both companies say local sources are unreliable as supplies are inadequate and erratic in the absence of a collection system.
Which is a waste, really, as the quantity of tyres we junk is by no means small - 19.7 million tyres or 157,000 tonnes annually, according to a 2003 study by the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) and Danish International Development Agency (Danida). Two years later, Advanced Pyrotech estimated that 180,000 tonnes are tossed out each year, or 500 tonnes a day.
Carelessly discarded tyres can endanger public health and the environment, yet everyone, from tyre manufacturers to workshop operators, car owners and local governments, shun responsibility over the waste. Workshop operators get it worst for at the end of the day, they are the ones saddled with heaps of old tyres. Not all of them can find a trader who knows of a recycler to send the tyres to, so they pay a contractor to cart the tyres away - no questions are asked on where the waste ends up. In many instances, the contractor will simply dump the tyres to avoid paying tipping fees at landfills.
To clear the tyre mess, these countries enact laws to regulate collection and storage, and work with industries to develop markets for recycled tyres. Some even have a producer take-back obligation which makes manufacturers responsible for collecting and disposing of used tyres. In the United States, such efforts saw over 80% of scrap tyres (or 233 million tyres) saved from landfills in 2003, up from 17% in 1990.
To cover the cost of managing scrap tyres, these countries typically introduce an environmental fee or disposal tax in tyre prices. In the United States, this fee ranges from US50 cents to US$2 (RM1.90 to RM7.60) for each passenger car tyre.
Such efforts are sorely needed in Malaysia. There were proposals but so far, nothing has materialised. Advanced Pyrotech managing director Jonathan Lee says there are companies in need of scrap tyres but they will not use local stocks until regulations and proper collections are in place. "If it is not regulated, we are subject to price fluctuations due to supply and demand," he says.
It is easy to understand why these companies source for scraps from abroad. This is not only an easy way out, but a cheap one, too. Advanced Pyrotech will get scrap tyres for free from Japan, while Lafarge is paid to accept and burn the tyres. If the companies were to use local tyres, they would have to pay for them.
In Japan, tyre retrievals are high as collectors are paid US$300 (RM1,140) per tonne. Because recyclers cannot use all the tyres, the collectors gladly ship the waste free to Advanced Pyrotech. They have also assured the company of 120 tonnes a day, which local scrap dealers fail to do.
The company took a year to obtain the necessary permits from the International Trade and Industry Ministry and Malaysian Industrial Development Authority as local rules forbid imports of waste. Lee says the application was rejected twice but the argument that the scraps will form raw material eventually won over. But the approval came with restrictions. The company can import 120 tonnes a day in the first year but only 70% of that in the second, and 50% and 30% in the next two. From the fifth year, it must use only local tyre waste. But Lee intends to appeal for an extension if a tyre waste collection system is still not in place by then.
Burning tyres has reduced Lafarge's reliance on coal in over 20 of its cement plants worldwide. Quemener says the company is ready to use local tyre waste as soon as a collection system exists, and will consider burning tyres in its kilns in Rawang, Selangor, and Kanthan, Perak. "As we need to make a significant investment to shred and introduce tyres in our kiln, we need to be sure that the project is economically interesting before doing it," he says. He says the authorities must set clear rules, especially prohibiting landfilling of waste tyres, and make collection and elimination of tyres economically attractive, such as by rewarding companies which dispose of used tyres in an environmentally friendly way.
He cites Lafarge as an example: "By eliminating waste tyres we help the community to clean the environment, but we want this activity to be profitable for us. That means it must decrease our fuel cost. Therefore we ask to be paid for each tonne of tyres eliminated in our kilns." But finally, as Quemener points out, "the consumer has to understand that a used tyre can become a potential threat to the environment and he has to feel responsible for it." We have long ignored the problem but tyre heaps can only get bigger with each new car that rolls down the assembly line.