Other reasons why our rubber rejects are back on the road include the fact Auckland processing plants can’t keep up; local markets for shredded, chipped, crumbed, cooked and other by-product haven’t been developed; and opposition grows to exporting whole tyres.

No one quite knows what to do with our worn out waste rubber, although one company, having recently acquired Hawke’s Bay’s illegal stockpile at Whakatu, seems to think there’s gold in those tyre mountains.

Ecoversion sees its rubber repositories as raw material for a yet-to-be-imported processing plant, having acquired the Whakatu paddock-full shortly after consenting delays forced an entrepreneurial Awatoto tyre recycler into liquidation before he could fire up his equipment.

Fewer re-treads, cheaper imports and the increasing cost of disposal add to the dilemma of whether old tyres are treasure or trash. There are regular reports of riverbank dumping in Hawke’s Bay and over the past year hundreds of tyres have appeared on forestry land and a golf course.

There’s a large store of tyres along Glengarry Rd, and a gully in high country farmland, being filled in with reject tyres, then covered over – something the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC) says is “definitely not permitted”.

Then there’s the underlying challenge that the tyre industry should take more responsibility for its waste, as most brands already charge customers a premium for disposal.

Karmic disposal dilemma

With no national framework or recycling scheme for dealing with end of life tyres (ELTs), local and regional councils struggle with complex land fill rules and consent applications for those who want to store tyres or set up recycling plants.

About five million tyres reach the end of their useful life annually, but less than 30% are recycled, according to Hastings-based 3R Group chief executive Adele Rose.

She says New Zealand’s track record is littered with good intentions, dubious science and failed investments, often resulting in abandoned stockpiles and council clean-ups costing ratepayers millions of dollars.

One of the major fears is that accumulated tyres, although requiring significant heat to ignite, can burn long and fiercely, emitting thick black clouds of toxic fumes that can drift for kilometres.

In Hawke’s Bay the issue came to prominence in 2009 as locals watched the great Pandora tyre pyramid rise up in a Prebenson Drive paddock over three years despite abatement notices.

The half million tyre monument allegedly destined for recycling in China was collected by The Retired Tyre Company but in April 2009 East Coast Exporters, storing the tyres on five hectares of Crown land, went into receivership.

Napier director Bill Lambert was sentenced in the Environment Court to 350 hours community work for his “deliberate and reckless” actions in failing to comply.

Disposing of the tyres, viewed as a health and safety issue and a fire hazard, became a major logistical challenge. Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) initially estimated removal costs at around $500,000, the reality was closer to $1.25 million.

It took two years for Waikato Waste Tyre Solutions to clear the site, redirecting tyres to retaining walls, racetrack safety barriers, farm silage containment and ‘other storage locations’. Some still form part of the current displaced tyre convoy.

Tyre farm grows illegally in Whakatu

Tyre kickers

In mid-September The Retired Tyre Company’s director Shane Donaldson, sold his collection business, including tens of thousands of tyres at Whakatu, to Ecoversion.

Donaldson who’s been trucking tyres around the country for a decade, will remain on for three years continuing his East Coast-Hawke’s Bay pick-ups, is no doubt relieved to pass on responsibility for the Whakatu field of rubber, currently in breach of a Hawke’s Bay Regional Council abatement notice.

Mike Alebardi, HBRC’s team leader for pollution response and enforcement, says the Whakatu site is not a legitimate storage facility. The notice served on operator Donaldson and landowner Russell Deacon expired long ago – “the tyres should already be gone”.

Because the Government doesn’t see tyre stockpiling as a prioritised environmental risk, HBRC had the NZ Fire Service declare it a fire risk and considers removal a matter of urgency.  “If there was a fire then it would definitely be an environmental effect… We’re very nervous.”

Alebardi hasn’t been as firm as the law allows for fear of worsening problem. “We could go in hard and issue a prosecution and daily fines but where are those tyres going to go?”

He and other regional council representatives are struggling with what has become a tiresome topic. “There’s no funding for this kind of thing; central Government needs to stand up and take a lead … It’s a real problem and we struggle to deal with it.”

Auckland-based Ecoversion undertook to remove the tyres “within months” but has its own logistical nightmare finding an appropriate site ahead of the arrival of a state-of-the-art tyre recycling plant from China, which it alleges could be operational by March 2016.

Merry go round trip

The Retired Tyre Company was sending truckloads to Kawerau and Auckland and sending container loads of bailed tyres to India and Asia via Vietnam, where they were cooked, shredded and used as fuel for power generation.

That stopped because of the cost and slowing demand. Now the New Zealand Government, honouring its Basel Convention obligations, says it’s illegal to export whole, bailed or unprocessed tyres to China and Vietnam under threat of seizure and prosecution.

Maybe Government seizure might put the ball back in the court where many believe it belongs?

Donaldson is confident Ecoversion will deliver. “They’ve been knocked down so many times and got back up again. There’s no financial benefit in it for them to make this deal with me … the future is coming.”

The plant – “the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere” – would allegedly transform at least 10,000 tonnes of tyres a year into bitumen modifiers and, after shedding and crumbing, create de-vulcanised rubber sheets for a range of uses. Samples are currently undergoing independent laboratory trials.

Ecoversion managing director Angela Merrie told BayBuzz all investment is local and confirms a deposit has been paid on the Chinese plant with export contracts secured for everything it can produce.

NIMBY. Not in my backyard!

The company has been given the run around by various district councils. It faces an abatement notice at its former base in Kawerau to remove a 1,200 tonne stockpile, and on the verge of a compliance sign-off for premises in Tokoroa, the South Waikato District Council objected.

In April the Hamilton City Council contracted Ecoversion to remove 150,000 tyres left after a local storage business failed to pay rent on council premises at Frankton. While adding those to the 200,000 at its Kawerau depot, the Kawerau District Council withdrew consent.

From May about 135,000 tyres began arriving at a Waihi Beach quarry where the council quickly imposed a limit, then around 6,000 tyres ended up on farmland two kilometres from the edge of Lake Taupo.

While Ecoversion may have the best of intentions, it’s in a Catch 22 situation. Without a storage facility and premises for its factory it can’t land the processing equipment, and without the recycling machinery, despite support from district councils, regional councils are risk averse.

Critics claim Ecoversion is trying to gain a monopoly, then force the Government to subsidise its business, while mainstream media report every rejection, challenging the company’s credibility and the chequered careers of its directors. “We are very confident that we can and will allay any fears in this area,” Merrie insists.

Hastings waste minimisation officer Dominic Salmon believes Ecoversion’s success or otherwise will depend on its business plan. “Once that’s proven there will be no issue securing product and it will be embraced by all councils and manufacturers.”

Like other local authorities, he’s looking for an act of faith, “bring it in (the plant), start doing it and everything will come your way.”

Built in recycling fee

In August last year the cost of tyre disposal at the joint council Omarunui Landfill was increased by more than 25% to cover the cost of quartering tyres to take up less space in the compaction process.

The Henderson Road rubbish dump in Hastings refuses to take tyres. “We’re trying to put responsibility for this back on the industry,” says Salmon.

He says most importers and manufacturers include a $5-$6 recycling fee, so people should ask: “What am I paying for… are they investing in a sustainable tyre programme?”

Salmon says collectors may charge $1-$2 per tyre, but there’s still a large shortfall for recycling. Research shows getting tyres to somewhere like Korea where they can be recycled properly could cost $6-$7.

“If people come into the market saying they can recycle a tyre for $1-$2, I would suggest they’re being land-farmed somewhere.”

Ecoversion’s Merrie suggests the average collector gets 50% of the end-of-life tyre fee charged by retailers and less scrupulous ones simply stockpile. She favours a robust licensing scheme for collectors and recyclers as part of a government-led stewardship programme.

Despite claims to the contrary, she insists, there is no recycling of any significance taking place in New Zealand, and Ecoversion will be the first to deliver a high quality option.

3R Group’s Adele Rose says New Zealand is late to the game in developing markets for processing waste tyres

Lobbying falls flat

Adele Rose at 3R Group, which runs the PaintWise and AgRecovery recycling programmes and project manages the Tyrewise End of Life Stewardship project, says New Zealand is late to the game in developing markets for processing waste tyres.

Although tyre importers, processors and local government have thrashed out a compulsory stewardship scheme over the past four years to encourage local processing, they’ve failed to get government support.

Rose says achieving industry agreement was “a gift” to the Government and she’s frustrated so little has happened. Councils have their own policies and consent processes that differ widely and even contribute to scrap tyres being moved between regions, she says.

Even if the Government came on board, adopting changes to the national environmental standards could take up to seven years.

The Tyrewise group is working with Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) on guidelines for storing tyres, including water run-off, fire protection and insurance.

In the meantime 3R Group is gathering data for another round of lobbying to prove there’s a case for intervention. It wants to know how many tyres are collected, who’s picking them up, where they’re being taken and what’s happening to them.

Ideally people should be able to drop off old tyres at no fee. Tyrewise wants a compulsory ‘advance disposal fee’, collected by Government or an industry body, to ensure all importers are involved in appropriate disposal.

This, says Rose, would incentivise everyone including the processing and recycling industry. A voluntary scheme wouldn’t work because ‘free-riders’ would take advantage.

Currently collectors charge to pick up tyres and pay processors who have to find their own market outlets. Rose says processors need help establishing local markets for products such as rubber crumb, which in some cases is already exported.

The New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) is researching the use of rubber chip in roading and tyre crumb as an emulsifier for longer lasting roads. Wider use of the Waste Minimisation Fund is being encouraged to develop markets for chip, crumb, carbon black and oil.

Local tyre collector Shane Donaldson remains sceptical of 3R Group’s plans. “They want to clip the ticket, they’re never going to touch a tyre. …They just want to control the industry, allocate the money and tell me how much I get paid to dispose of tyres.”

Opportunity lost

After six years of research including three years planning, Haumoana-based engineer Neil Mitchell imported a ‘pyrolysis plant’ from China, believing it to be the missing link in the local tyre disposal chain.

In November 2014, after borrowing money and mortgaging his home, Mitchell’s Tyreless Corporation claimed the Awatoto-based plant would soon be processing 24,000 tyres a month.

When BayBuzz called nearly a year later, Mitchell expected his tyre-cooking company would be placed in liquidation any day, and was driving trucks to keep his creditors at bay.

It’s a sad saga of an enthusiastic entrepreneur being under-capitalised and unprepared for the obstacles that lay ahead. Napier City Council agreed it was a permitted activity and HBRC eventually granted consents, but once the machinery was installed Mitchell ran into a perfect storm of opposition.

The Chinese he’d purchased from failed to fix a technical glitch, an Awatoto air quality report gave locals the jitters, and two neighbours including the owner of a burned out old meat works began a concerted campaign objecting to the business before it was operating.

The objections were eventually dropped, but the $70,000 in consents, defending his case, paying air emissions experts, months of delays and building rental with no returns were crippling.

Mitchell was confident his plant could extract carbon black for the commodity market, steel for local scrap metal merchants, refine oil for furnaces or ship fuel and provide up to ten jobs.

Help requests rejected

Once the ‘glitch’ was resolved, he was ready to roll, but desperately needed help. An application to the Waste Minimisation Fund was rejected. “They said the process was untried in the Southern Hemisphere, didn’t believe we were competent, and there was no health and safety plan in place.”

The Chamber of Commerce “offered no help”; The Business Hub “passed me around to so many different people and then no one got back”; Napier City Council’s business mentors said it was outside their field of expertise. And HBRC? “All we got was a bill for the court hearing and consents.”

Mitchell says: “We put ourselves on the line and could have solved the local tyre disposal problem.” He’ll be paying back family money for the rest of his life and is doubly frustrated that someone may now get his plant for a bargain basement price.

A registered machinery valuer estimated the equipment on site at $610,000, or if uplifted and moved to another premises, $350,000.

Shane Donaldson, who worked with Mitchell for a number of years, saw his machinery operating. “He needed help, but the councils just made it too hard for him. It’s a good thing turning waste into a commodity, but he had to jump through so many hoops to prove it could work.”

Although the Government wants an industry-led solution, it’s apparent that a fair system where everyone contributes with incentives for new processors and markets will require legislation and industry standards.

While Pacific Rubber in Auckland takes tyres from around the country, it also has a large stockpile – “the scale of which you can see on Google Maps,” says HDC waste minimisation officer, Dominic Salmon.

And that’s only dealing with part of the 2.4 million car tyres and 600,000 truck tyres per year that need disposing of.

Salmon, Rose and Alebardi insists our government needs to make this a priority. Salmon says it took a million tyre blaze in the 1990s for the Canadian government to wake up to its responsibilities.

“Overnight they changed their approach and adopted a stewardship programme across seven states and in some areas there’s now 100% recovery with tyre piles excavated and processed.”

Shouldn’t we be ‘tyred’ of waiting here in New Zealand?

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