Climate change boffins visit pioneering Hammarsdale tyre recycler

30 January 2019 | Web Article Number: ME201913350

Green Industries & Renewable Energy
Plastics & Rubber

SCIENTISTS attending the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II meeting in Durban recently visited Mathe Group, South Africa’s largest radial truck tyre recycling plant.

Based in Hammarsdale, the factory has been a trailblazer in the recycling of the millions of used radial truck tyres that had been building up in the country.

Intense product development and changing mind sets to create demand for the resulting rubber crumb were key to Mathe’s ongoing success, explained Dr Mehran Zarrebini, head of British investment group PFE International, which bought a major stake in the group three years ago.

Until 2012, South Africa had no tyre recycling strategy.

Zarrebini said that, because tyres are robust and durable, they are notoriously difficult to recycle and take ages to biodegrade. Up until now, they either accumulated in landfills or were dumped on vacant land. Often, impoverished communities burnt them for warmth or to remove scrap metal. The resulting dioxins and carbon monoxide were both an environmental and a health hazard.

Mathe Group began operating from a mini factory in New Germany, Pinetown in 2012. The joint venture with PFE International ensured a ready supply of rubber crumb for the manufacture of acoustic underlays for carpets manufactured at PFE’s Van Dyck Floors factory.

When the new R20-million processing plant in Hammarsdale came on stream in 2016, the number of tyres processed shot up from 8 500 in 2012 to over 170 000 in 2018 and rubber crumb output grew from 400 tons to 6200 tons.

Dr Marlies Craig, Science Officer for the IPCC Working Group II pointed out that operations like Mathe Group were important in light of the dire warnings in the latest IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.

“Without wide ranging, unprecedented and immediate transformation in the way we do things, we are heading for extremely dangerous levels of global warming, sea level rise, extreme weather and related disasters. During this meeting, we organised a range of different excursions to interesting sites where our international guests could see some local climate change and sustainable development activities in the African context,” she said.

Zarrebini warned that there had to be strong business case for recycling. Even after 2012, tyre recycling in South Africa was neither sustainable nor viable because demand for rubber crumb was extremely limited and set up costs high. As a result, many small start-up companies closed.

Mathe Group persevered based on intense product and market development.

“You actually have to develop a demand for products. You have to essentially create an industry and a consumer need for products made from recycled rubber that these consumers and industries didn’t know existed,” he said.

Another challenge was finding a use for all of the recycled products. He explained that, if uptake was restricted to just one size of rubber crumb, then the remainder of the particles resulting from the recycling process would become environmentally hazardous waste in a different form. The same goes for the hi-tensile steel which makes up approximately 15 to 20 percent of each 68 kg truck tyre.

“So, when you start a business such as this, you have to anticipate all the byproducts and find markets for all of them. We’ve managed to develop markets for different types of rubber crumb across a broad range of industries as well as an export market for the steel which is used by the motor and ship building industries in Korea and Australia,” he said.

Visitors to the Mathe Group plant saw how the massive tyres that are delivered every week are sorted and then put through a three-phase crushing process. In addition to being used to manufacture the original carpet underlays, different sized particles are used to manufacture rubber flooring, paving and ballistic blocks, as an infill for sports fields utilising artificial grass, retreading tyres and as a component in modified bitumen for road resurfacing and non-slip paint.

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