Australia produces millions of used tyres a year but many still go to landfills

In a field near Longford, Tasmania stands a gigantic illustration of the challenges faced when it comes to disposing of the tyres that come off Australia’s vehicles.

A stockpile of more than a million used tyres. It has been a constant throughout Wes Ford’s career with Tasmania’s Environmental Protection Agency.

“In the nine years that I have been here, I haven’t seen much change in this pile,” he told 7.30.

Thousands of used tyres in piles spread out over a brown landscape.
A stockpile of more than a million tyres in a field near Longford, Tasmania.(ABC News: Owain Stia-James)

“[It] commenced life about 15 years ago and has been growing ever since. There are currently no approvals for the stockpile, so it is operating unlawfully.”

EPA Tasmania now has an order for the owner to remove them, but no one expects that to happen anytime soon.

“That doesn’t actually fix the problem of the tyres being removed,” Mr Ford said.

“The challenge in Tasmania is there is nowhere that these tyres can actually be taken for processing at this point in time.”

Man in a black jacket leaning his left arm on a stone pillar.
Wes Ford from EPA Tasmania says the tyre stockpile near Longford has barely changed in nine years.(ABC News: Owain Stia-James)

The stockpile near Longford represents a tiny fraction of the used tyres produced in Australia.

Last year, the equivalent of 68 million passenger car tyres came off vehicles across the country, according to statistics from Tyre Stewardship Australia (TSA).

TSA is made up of representatives from across the tyre supply chain.

In 2023, it said 58 per cent of used tyres were recovered for re-use or reprocessing but when it comes to the number of tyres heading for landfill, the organisation said Australia was moving backwards.

Thousands of used tyres in piles spread out over a brown landscape.
In 2023, according to Tyre Stewardship Australia, 58 per cent of used tyres were recovered for re-use or reprocessing.(ABC News: Owain Stia-James)

Last year, the TSA said 225,000 tonnes of used tyres ended up in landfill or were stockpiled or were illegally dumped. That’s a significant increase from 2018, when the figure was 143,000 tonnes.

Other industry groups, such as the Australian Tyre Recyclers Association, said those statistics did not tell the full story.

The group said many tyres disposed of in landfill or legally buried came from mining and other industries, with a recovery rate of just 8 per cent last year.

And it said even if tyres were “landfilled”, it was through a legal and well-regulated process.

Unlawful dumping

Man in high-vis standing next to a pile of dumped tyres.
Arun Baskaran from EPA Victoria says many smaller tyre retailers do not understand their obligations.(ABC News: Norman Hermant)

Another aspect of the used tyre problem is dumping.

In the western suburbs of Melbourne, Arun Baskaran leads a team from EPA Victoria working to prevent illegal tyre dumping. A big part of the job is inspecting mechanics and tyre stores to ensure they’re disposing of used tyres properly.

“A lot of the smaller retailers tend not to have too much knowledge or awareness of their obligations,” Mr Baskaran said.

On a recent sweep, the EPA team visited two shops in Sunshine North. The manager of the first location, Loki Avvaru, said he’s been told to look out for illegal operators who offer to pick up used tyres for very low rates.

A man talks to two men who are wearing high-vis vests.
Loki Arravu, a manager at Nova Tyres, talks to the EPA team.(ABC News: Norman Hermant)

“I’ve been warned by my head office … whoever asked for cheaper value, if they come with a van or whatever, we’re not supposed to give any tyre to them,” he said.

Operators who offer to pick up tyres cheaply are suspected of pocketing the money and then illegally dumping them, rather than paying the full amount to have them properly disposed of.

“We want to see an industry aware that there are people going and doing the wrong thing and picking up tyres,” Mr Baskaran said.

EPA Victoria officers in high-vis speaking to a man in a garage.
Neil, a manager at Spot On Tyre and Auto, tells the EPA team “dodgy” people regularly offer to take his used tyres.(ABC News: Norman Hermant)

At the next stop, garage manager Neil admits there are frequent visits from operators offering to haul away tyres at well below the typical rate – just a few dollars per tyre.

He said he does not take up their offers because they seem “dodgy”.

“You’ll see they just come in with a trailer, not even a truck,” he said. “Once a week … someone comes out at least once a week.”

Not far away, on a dead-end street in an industrial estate, the EPA team inspects what they are trying to prevent: piles of used tyres on the side of the road.

Man in high-vis standing next to a pile of dumped tyres.
The EPA team inspects used tyres dumped by the side of a road in Victoria.(ABC News: Norman Hermant)

Most of them are baled, held together with steel wire. Mr Baskaran suspects they may have been stored for years and dumped after an illegal operator was paid to haul them away from businesses.

The responsibility for disposing of dumped tyres falls on local councils.

“This is the last thing the EPA, council, community want to see, is the unlawful dumping of any type of waste, especially stuff about tyres,” he said.

Stopping tyres going to landfill

Thousands of used tyres in piles spread out over a brown landscape.
Last year 225,000 tonnes of used tyres ended up in landfill, were stockpiled or were illegally dumped, according to TSA.(ABC News: Owain Stia-James)

Australia does have a large tyre recycling industry. Crumb rubber from shredded tyres goes into asphalt for roads, and extracted tyre-derived fuel can be used to provide energy.

But landfill is still an option for used tyres across the country.

“It’s really important to be diverting tyres away from landfill and to shore that up,” said Suzanne Toumbourou, CEO of the Australian Council of Recycling.

“The one thing we need first and foremost is a consistent regulatory framework across the country to ensure that we are banning unprocessed tyres from landfill.”

A woman sitting in a chair.
Suzanne Toumbourou, CEO of the Australian Council of Recycling, wants to see consistent regulation across the country.(ABC News: Michael Nudl)

Crucially, Ms Toumbourou said, all governments needed to help spur demand for products made from used tyres. That would mean even the minority of tyres going to landfill would be more valuable for recycling and re-use.

But that could mean extra spending to ensure recycling and re-use rates increase.

“Yes, the ultimate goal is to make sure that the markets are able to drive the value of recovered products like tyres,” she said.

“But on that journey, we cannot be under the illusion that this process is free or cheap.”

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