Adopting circular economy practices in the mining industry does not only refer to the on-site practices of employees and mining corporations, but also extends to include responsible management of the waste streams the industry produces. While the spotlight has certainly shifted to illuminate environmentally friendly practices like proper tailings storage, and more recently recycling mining uniforms, end-of-life (EOL) tyres is the latest waste stream undergoing upheaval.
In late 2022, Federal Minister for Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, pinpointed tyres as one of three waste streams on the Federal Government’s annual priority list. This brought necessary attention to the lagging rates of used tyre recovery, particularly for OTR (off-the-road) tyres, effectively putting the industry on notice.
The Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water estimates that more than 130,000 tonnes of mining, agriculture and aviation tyres reach end of life each year, with a mere eleven per cent being recovered. On top of this, approximately 80,000 tonnes of additional related products, like rubber tracks and conveyor belts, are currently not being sustainably managed each year.
These EOL tyres often end up buried in-pit or dumped on land, resulting in significant environmental, health and safety hazards. The sheer magnitude of this waste stream and the dangers of improper waste management has underscored the need for product stewardship schemes and an increase in processes to recycle EOL tyres.
Product stewardship in Australia refers to the shared responsibility of everyone who imports, sells, designs, produces, uses and disposes of products to lessen the environmental, and health and safety impacts of these products.
Examples of good product stewardship include companies designing products for easier recycling, companies limiting the hazardous materials its products contain, companies utilising more recycled materials and less resources to manufacture its products, and people recycling products and their packaging.
The National Product Stewardship Investment Fund provides financial support to set up new product stewardship arrangements or to improve existing ones.
Tyre Stewardship Australia
An initiative to combat the EOL tyre waste stream was first announced in 2014 by the then Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt.
Mr Hunt announced the formation of the national Tyre Product Stewardship Scheme (the Scheme) to support and promote the increase in environmentally sustainable collection and recycling processes, and to explore new uses for and products using recycled EOL tyres.
Some of the benefits for participants, the community and the tyre industry as a whole that the Scheme aims to achieve include:
- Increasing the use of a resource stream currently being disposed of
- A reduction in the number of tyres not going to an environmentally-sound use
- To enhance the Australian recycling industry and sustainable markets to reuse EOL tyres and tyre-derived products
- An increased capacity to handle EOL tyres in Australia
- To create new markets for EOL tyres and tyre-derived products through research and development
- Improving the business environment, particularly for tyre collectors and recyclers
- Increasing consumer awareness of the impacts of EOL tyre disposal
- Enhanced credibility for the tyre industry who can demonstrate leadership in environmental management and adopt corporate social responsibility strategies
In order to facilitate the Scheme, Mr Hunt also announced the formation of Tyre Stewardship Australia (TSA) to provide a national framework for increased recycling of Australia’s used tyres. This was successful for domestic tyres, but is looking to expand its recovery efforts for off-the-road tyres used in mining, construction, agriculture, aviation, and manufacturing due to the very low rates of recovery.
Tyre Stewardship Australia’s CEO, Lina Goodman, said that TSA’s main purpose when established was to implement the national Tyre Product Stewardship Scheme and promote the development of viable markets for end-of-life tyres in Australia.
“TSA was formulated by the Australian Tyre Industry Council (ATIC), with the aim to establish a standalone organisation whose primary focus was finding solutions for tyres once they reach end of life,” Ms Goodman said.
The Scheme is currently supported by tyre importers and auto brands who voluntarily pay a levy on each tyre they sell or import into the Australian market. This represents, however, less than 50 per cent of all tyres imported into Australia. This has led to calls for a regulatory framework.
A Scheme underpinned by a regulatory framework would mean that a levy would apply to all tyres coming into Australia, ensuring that all organisations who sell tyres into the Australian market are also responsible for contributing to solutions once the tyres reach end of life.
“Today we have over 1,700 accredited participants in the Scheme, which include tyre retailers, collectors, recyclers and a small number of local councils and fleet organisations. Through their participation, they demonstrate their commitment to sustainable practices for their markets, stakeholders and future generations,” Ms Goodman said.
TSA works along the tyre recovery supply chain to minimise waste and increase value for government, industry, businesses and consumers by:
- Supporting the transformation of a waste product into a useful commodity
- Creating new markets, technologies and employment opportunities
- Reducing the environmental and social harm caused by the burying or illegal dumping of used tyres
“As of 2022, TSA has committed $9 million to 60-plus projects creating real-world outcomes and solutions for Australia’s end-of-life tyres including in roads, research, civil engineering, manufacturing, mining and rail sectors,” Ms Goodman said.
Current practice for end-of-life tyres.
The current practices relating to how the industry handles EOL OTR tyres – including illegal dumping, stockpiling and even burning – can have significant and often harmful environmental, health, and safety impacts on the community and the environment as a whole. These problems have been largely solved for domestic tyres, with recovery rates at more than 90 per cent versus less than eleven per cent recovery for OTR tyres. However collectively, a recovery rate of only 65 per cent is being reached for Australia’s EOL tyres.
“If not managed responsibly, end-of-life tyres can cause environmental and social harm through the illegal dumping, stockpiling, or burying which can lead to fires and/or long term degradation of our land,” Ms Goodman said.
Although TSA is working to mitigate instances where these kinds of things occur, Ms Goodman said there are unfortunately still instances of rogue operators who collect tyres and dump them across various locations, on both private and public land, potentially causing harm and increasing the risk of fire hazards.
“Communities are left with clean up costs, largely borne by the rate payer – either through local or State Government – associated with illegal dumping of tyres, and unsuspecting farmers are having tyres dumped on their land.
“Tyres that are stockpiled or illegally dumped are a breeding ground for mosquitoes which can create harm for the communities around them.”
This kind of harmful current practice underscores the urgent necessity for regulation, an increase in environmentally sustainable collection and recycling processes, and an end to the linear approach in lieu of a circular economy.
“The circular economy breaks away from the traditional, linear manufacturing process that sees materials extracted, used, and thrown away. Instead, it embraces a ‘closed-loop system’ to reuse and regenerate resources continually.
“Australia has made significant strides in demonstrating the potential for used tyres to become a valuable resource in the circular economy, in rubberised asphalt for roads, noise wall barriers, and agricultural mats.”
Ms Goodman said that recovering tyres is not just a matter of social responsibility, it also has profound opportunities for Australian businesses.
“We could improve energy management by replacing coalfired energy generation with tyre-derived alternative fuels, we could use crumbed tyres in new building materials.
“An innovative approach to tyre recovery can create new jobs and opportunities in regional and remote Australia, promote innovation and productivity, and turn what was a waste product into something valuable.”
Creating a circular economy for EOL tyres
It goes without saying that recycling of EOL tyres is a key step towards eliminating this waste stream and implementing circular economy practices. Ms Goodman said TSA is working to improve recovery and processing of EOL tyres in a few ways.
“We work to build collaboration and partnership to solve the challenges of recovery that affect each sector and user of tyres, to support a shared approach along the supply chain and realise unique solutions that require cooperation,” Ms Goodman said.
“We support research into new end products to demonstrate and develop innovative uses for EOL tyres, and we support market development initiatives to pilot the use of these products across Australia and the world.”
On top of this, TSA is continually working to find new markets and manufacturing processes that advance the consumption of crumb rubber in new value-added products across Australia’s circular economy.
Some of the applications for tyre-derived products can include crumbed rubber asphalt for improved road durability reuse for athletic tracks, permeable urban paving to reduce run off and provide water to surrounding trees and to construct noise and acoustic barriers.
Research that TSA has supported has investigated using tyre rubber for road construction, industrial spray sealants, volume expander, masonry including pavers and bricks, tyre additives to cement, binders, acoustic applications, road barriers, and permeable pavement.
One of the more obvious challenges with recycling mining tyres when compared to passenger vehicle tyres is the sheer size of them. Mining off the road (OTR) tyres are typically enormous, with the tyres used on earthmoving vehicles weighing up to 4.5 tonnes and measuring up to four metres in diameter. In addition to this, mining tyres are highly specialised.
“[Mining tyres] have substantial amounts of high-quality steel, and special formulations of rubber to improve material properties. These factors mean that recovery efforts need to be highly specialised to the particular tyre, to recover the valuable materials in a way that can best use them.”
Ms Goodman said that the equipment needed to recover these kinds of tyres needs to be “very big and very strong”, and the handling of these giant tyres requires specific infrastructure which is only just now becoming available in Australia.
“Passenger tyres, in contrast, are small and typically only contain cheap rubber with only some fibre. The machines to process these are much smaller and deployed for a different purpose.”
There are also additional health and safety standards and practices to keep in mind when handling the giant tyres, with improper usage and handling representing a potentially lethal risk to mining workforces and others.
“Their handling, management and storage across supply, replacement, on-vehicle use, inspection, and maintenance, and removal for end-of-life management stages, all need to meet safety standards to prevent accidents,” Ms Goodman said.
“Guidelines such as internal operating manuals, Australian Standards (e.g., Australian Standard 4457 for the maintenance and repair of OTR tyres), and other guidance, including guidelines published by states and territories, are used to support tyre safety.”
There are also geographical barriers to the recycling of OTR tyres due to the remoteness of some of Australia’s mine sites. The average distance between mining sites and used tyre processing sites in some states is around 200km, with Western Australia having the longest average distance of around 800km.
“Because of the significant distances from where waste mining tyres are generated and where current facilities operate, it is very difficult to transport them cheaply. There is limited incentive to invest in local processing for these tyres because they can currently be disposed of in-pit on mine sites.
“It is expensive to collect and process them and cheap to dispose of them in a pit. Because of this, there has been little investment into improving the processing capacity of mining tyres.”
Ms Goodman said TSA is “working with industry to discuss the potential creation of regional collection hubs/processing facilities to ease the logistical and transportation challenges associated with large mining tyres”.
Working to tackle this issue will involve stakeholder engagement to show that these kinds of issues can be tackled without disrupting business.
“We will need to review the permissions for burying in pit, support market development and investment, and engage miners, logistics companies, tyre manufacturers, and processors to develop comprehensive solutions.”
Other approaches to tackling this challenge include employing reverse logistics solutions, where waste tyres would be brought out on the same trucks and at the same time as new tyres are brought in, as well as involving some degree of on site processing to reduce the size of the tyres and make transport easier.
Adopting new changes is not always smooth sailing and there can often be pushback to implementing these new practices, but Ms Goodman said both the mining industry and the agriculture industry have been relatively receptive to change.
“Everyone knows that changes need to happen and that what was acceptable once, no longer is. Mining organisations are open to discussing options available to them and seeking practical solutions, but it is a big problem that cannot be solved quickly or without significant effort.
“The agriculture sector needs support on addressing the barriers to tyre recovery that uniquely affect them, but they do not have the resources that big mining companies have so the way we engage with them and what they are able to do is different.
“Everyone we have worked with has shown a great willingness and eagerness to engage with this problem, even if they don’t always agree on the exact way to do so.”
Around the world mandatory EOL tyre schemes have had positive effects on extending the life of tyres in mining, increasing recovery rates, creating economic growth and jobs and inspiring innovation. Changing on-site mining behaviour away from burying or stockpiling OTR tyres creates the volume needed to make all tyre recovery economically viable in regional and remote areas.
In efforts to tackle its own waste stream, Chile has implemented legislation that requires 100 per cent recovery of mining tyres by 2026. Ms Goodman said this kind of drastic change is not out of reach for Australia.
“Australia absolutely can recover close to 100 per cent of its end-of-life mining tyres, and we should. We need to ensure that on our pathway to 100 per cent recovery all stakeholders are involved in the process and that we tailor our approach to reflect Australia’s unique challenges and opportunities. We cannot rush, but neither can we delay.”
Ms Goodman said TSA’s goal is to “achieve world-class recovery rates for every tyre in every Australian location, no matter how challenging or remote”.
The voluntary nature of the Scheme means that those that participate do so without any mandate or regulation requiring them to, whereas a regulatory framework would require all tyre importers to Australia to participate.
“Ultimately, what we need is a regulated stewardship scheme to expedite tyre resource recovery and ensure that all importers of tyres are taking accountability and contributing towards sustainable outcomes for Australia’s used tyres.”