NZ's tyre mountains keep growing in the absence of recycling scheme
Every year, New Zealand creates 5 million waste tyres, and every year 70 per cent of them end up in landfill, or unaccounted for. Ged Cann looks at why Kiwis are so bad at recycling tyres, and the fire and environmental risks that creates.
They're dotted around the country.
Pockets of land that house mountains of old, unwanted car and truck tyres. And the longer these millions of tyres lie there, the more dangerous they become, posing environmental and fire risks.
A plan to tackle the issue of waste tyres is slowly gathering pace, all while the pile of tyres grows.
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So, what's happening? What can be done with these all of these tyres that are no longer required?
With every year that passes without a comprehensive recycling regime, tens of millions of landfill or improperly stored tyres degrade so much that they can no longer be recycled, according to a key player in the industry.
Two years ago Environment Minister Nick Smith opened applications for funding grants to help companies find a viable solution, but he is still unable to give specifics of what recycling schemes might look like, or even when they might begin.
"Commercial negotiations are under way with grant applicants, and you can never be absolutely sure when agreement will be reached. Our best estimate is in the next two months," he said.
The Ministry for the Environment released the Waste Tyres Economic Research report in 2014, revealing the sheer scale of the problem. Since then the number of vehicles on our roads has only increased.
The same report said investment in recycling is hampered by a limited market for recycled tyre products, and a lack of scale and funding.
The lack of action poses risks, because as tyres degrade, they create massive fire and environmental dangers.
When exposed to fire they let off a toxic smoke plume and, because of their shape, are extremely difficult to extinguish. When they are exposed to water, they leach toxic chemicals into the ground and water systems, including cadmium, lead and zinc.
NO NATIONAL GUIDELINES TO DEAL WITH SHADY OPERATORS
Waikato Regional Council senior manager Patrick Lynch says a lack of coherent rules within local government was allowing "shady" operators and practices to flourish.
"They see the hole in the regulatory framework that they can take advantage of. They can slip in, take these tyres, make a few bucks, and the cheaper they can get rid of them the more profit they have," he says.
Lynch has been overseeing the creation of new national guidelines for regional and district councils, which will inform safe storage and disposal practices across the country.
The final wording is now being put together, and Lynch says he hopes they will make fires less likely at storage facilities, which often hold hundreds of thousands of used tyres.
A new National Environmental Standard expected from the Ministry for the Environment is also hoped to further this.
Lynch says his main concern is that any recycling strategy may not be able to deal with the large volume of waste tyres, and that the target seemed to be on newly exhausted tyres, potentially leaving tens of millions of older tyres to languish in landfill.
SHOULD RESPONSIBILITY LIE WITH PRODUCERS?
Waikato University professor of law, and author on the topic, Alexander Gillespie, says the government is misguided in trying to incentivise the industry with grants, and should instead build on internationally-proven producer responsibility models.
These models make it the producers' responsibility to ensure used tyres are collected and recycled appropriately.
The cost of collection and recycling are inevitably passed onto the consumer, usually in the form of an inbuilt purchase cost, but by making the problem one for the competitive markets, Gillespie says producers can alter designs and components to make them more easily recycled.
"They designed it, they use the components of the product, and they know how it can be streamed when it's broken up. If you put the incentive on them, they will find a way to reduce it," he says.
Gillespie says there is already legislation in place to instigate such a scheme in New Zealand, but that government has an almost "ideological aversion" to passing cost onto producers.
Producer responsibility has been on the books overseas since 1991, when Germany ruled excess packaging could be removed and left at the shop of purchase.
"Instantly the shops started to fill up with excess packaging, which was pushed back to the producers, who instantly start to think - crikey, we don't want this problem, so they redesign the product. It's the same thinking whether you are thinking of cars, laptops, or tyres."
Gillespie said the government should be directing industry with policy — not money.
"You don't want to be the mechanism that says 'we will now turn it into jandals' or something like that... but you have to get the market produced with what the producers can do, otherwise you end up with a lot of bad jandals."
"Because it's relatively cheap to dump in landfill and there's still a reasonable amount of land they think it's easier to send tyres to landfill. But when you start to look at our consumption rates and the speed we are expanding, we are no longer the village we once were," Gillespie says.
TICKING TIMEBOMB ON RECYCLABILITY
Tyre Disposal Services 2012 Ltd owner Craig Shaw says he takes away 400,000 tyres every year from the lower-North Island and sends them to Malaysia, Vietnam and India for recycling.
He says tyres exposed to the elements to the point of degrading had no value to recyclers, with any over a decade old usually useless.
Shaw has worked in the industry for five years and is one of six members of the New Zealand Tyre Recycling and Collection Association.
He disputes the Ministry for the Environment figures that state 70 per cent of tyres are sent to landfill or improperly disposed of, and said his association collected two-thirds of the country's tyres and recycled them.
One move that could ensure more tyres were recycled, Shaw says, was ensuring mechanics and tyre dealers use reputable recyclers.
"The people who can control it the most are the tyre stores, because they can say 'hey we can see you're doing it properly, you're approved, you're charging us a reasonable rate'. Whereas when these guys come in and offer a dollar per tyre cash to get rid of their tyres, that's where this stems from."
Shaw estimated 30 per cent of mechanics didn't care where their tyres ended up, as long as they were out of the shop.
He said it took a lot to build up trust with a buyer overseas, with the industry attracting a lot of cowboys, but he said it could effectively self-regulate through organisation like the NZTRCA.
He said over-regulation would sink tyre recycling businesses, which already worked in a fluctuating and competitive market.
"It takes a lot of trust with the buyers, because you can appreciate anything in the waste industry is full or cowboys and rednecks," he said.
WHAT'S HAPPENING IN WELLINGTON?
Southern landfill waste manager Adrian Mitchell said tyres were not accepted at Wellington landfills.
To leave a car tyre will cost $4, with a truck tyre costing $10.
This amount goes towards recycling service, Tyre Disposal Services Ltd.
It has been a number of years since Mitchell said Wellington Regional Council allowed tyres into landfill, but that doesn't stop them popping up at the top of the heap.
"We call them landfill pimples actually because they somehow manage to work their way to the surface of the landfill and can pop out 10 years later."
Meanwhile, Victoria University associate professor Andrew Charleson has developed a cheap system for earthquake strengthening mud-brick houses that uses recycled tyres.
The straps, Charleson says, massively reduce the chance of building collapse, and could be sunk into the brick and plastered over.
He said the technology was ready for field testing, and had the potential to save hundreds of lives in third world countries, where mud-brick homes were still common.
"For the price of sending them to landfill, tyres could be cut into straps and shipped over to a developing country to be used in villages and towns," Charleson said.