Tyres burned in China, not recycled in Brisbane

More than a million used tyres from Brisbane are being burnt in China’s coal mines while local tyre recyclers struggle to source enough rubber to keep their businesses afloat.

Last year, more than 11 million used tyres were exported from Australia to China and Vietnam, with 1.5 million sent from Brisbane wharves.

Ipswich-based recycler Chip Tyre chief executive Dave Mohr said a loophole in government regulations, which listed tyres as “regulated” rather than a “hazardous” waste, had allowed their mass export.

Advertisement: Story continues below Mr Mohr said the practice was “unethical, if not illegal” under the Basel Convention, which prevents the exchange of hazardous waste between countries.

“One of the problems at the moment is that tyres are being baled and sent to China for dubious reasons,” he said. “They are not being recycled, they are being used to fuel kilns or power stations or whatever.”

Tyres are often collected from companies by the cheapest bidding firms, rather than rubber recycling businesses.

Queensland Waste Recyclers Association executive director Rick Ralph said stopping the export of old tyres was critical for local recycling businesses.

“We use the rubber in adhesives and we use it for all sorts of applications, for bitumen in roads,” he said.

“If we don’t do it, guess where will be importing the rubber back from? China.

“We have businesses now ready and wanting to invest, but because we can’t close this loophole and support the local recyclers, there is a danger our local recyclers will go out of business.”

The company appears to have won a sympathetic ear from the Queensland Government which is preparing to introduce a $35 a tonne waste levy on businesses storing wastes, including tyres.

Sustainability minister Kate Jones said exporting second-hand tyres would be discussed at a meeting next month of all Australian environment ministers.

“This is federal legislation. As a state minister I am not a signatory to it,” she said.

However, Ms Jones said she had met several times with the QWRA and conceded there were obstacles for rubber recyclers.

“At the moment it is cheaper to put them to these carriers than to do something else with the tyres,” she said.

Mr Mohr said his business could not compete with those that collected tyres and shipped them to China.

“It is two to three times more expensive for me to do what I am doing compared to what they are doing,” he said.

“Everybody believes their tyres are being dealt with in a responsible manner, but they aren’t.”

Mr Mohr said the major problem was a non-governmental fee collected by tyre retailers for each passenger vehicle tyre they sold.

“At the moment what is happening is that they will collect the $2.50 [for each tyre] and then whoever is the cheapest to the back door to pick the tyres up gets the job,” he said.

“So if they can get rid of the tyres for $1.50, or $1.10 each, as some people are talking about to get rid of the tyres, then they are letting the tyres go to whomever might be the cheapest, rather than whomever might be recycling.”

Recycled tyre rubber can be turned into grout, playground softfall and mixed in with road bitumen.

Ms Jones said the new Queensland waste levy, to be introduced next July, would put a “price signal” into the waste market and force “cowboy” operators out of the industry.

However, she said the Environmental Protection Agency was already taking action against two tyre recyclers in southeast Queensland, including one business with a licence to store 3000 tyres that had collected 180,000 tyres.

A second tyre recycling business which operated without a licence and without a council development application had been fined $85,000.

Ms Jones promised tougher penalties and more inspectors to monitor Queensland’s emerging waste industry.

“We will have to have increased regulation. I believe we will have to have additional officers,” Ms Jones said.

Finding enough tyre rubber was one of a number of issues addressed in the new Queensland Waste Strategy 2010-2020, which was launched in July.

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