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Recycling Used Car Tyres for Fuel and Plastic

Every year, 31 million tonnes of tires reach the ends of their lives; but, hitherto, because tires contain a complex mix of materials, doing anything other than dumping them, burning them, or occasionally incorporating the material into new road surfaces, has been extremely difficult. Now, though, the Norwegian company Wastefront has an alternative solution: a way to roast the raw materials out of old tires so they can be reused. This spares the environmental cost of sending them to a landfill or the pollution associated with burning them. They’ve just had plans for a new plant approved in Sunderland that will be able to turn 20% of the UK’s worn-out tires into plastics or biofuels, as Harry Lewis heard from Wastefront CEO Vianney Vales.

Vianney – If you look at what’s in a tire, there are three main components. You have the rubber, then you have carbon black, which is a carbon powder, and then you have the steel to maintain the structure of the tire. You have very nice components. If you could manage to recover them, that would be much better than burning them. So what we do is we use a system that’s called ‘pyrolysis’, which is about heating the tire that we have first shredded into smaller pieces. So the rubber decomposes into, firstly, a gas that is later condensed and produces a liquid. Okay, this liquid can be sold as a biofuel or can be re-transformed back into plastics, for example. The other part that is not decomposed is the carbon black. The carbon black is not changed by this pyrolysis. So this carbon black can be reutilized a hundred percent into tires. The steel that is separated during the shredding part mainly, can be recycled into steel. So the three components that the tire has been either upgraded into biofuels or bio petrochemical components or fully recycled as steel or as carbon black into tires.

Harry – And those dangerous chemicals, they’re not being released?

Vianney – No, because they’re not burned -they’re not emitted. When you heat it in the absence of oxygen, you do not produce CO2. You simply decompose the tire.

Harry – It sounds like a no-brainer Vianney but I’m assuming that there are high costs associated with this process. What’s the drawback?

Vianney – It’s high cost, but mainly it’s a complex association of different technologies. All of them are commercial, but you need to integrate them in a clever manner. The construction companies that you are hiring need to understand this kind of new project. So it’s a lot of putting everyone together.

Harry – And those building contractors that you’ve spoken about, they’re gonna get some work soon, aren’t they? Because you are opening something in Sunderland?

Vianney – What is important from our viewpoint is to not only have a green solution but also have a solution at a scale that can move the needle and really solve the end-of-life type problem. As an example, our plant in Sunderland in the Northeast of the UK, which will be our first commercial plant, is able to solve 20% of the end-of-life type problem in the UK on its own. So I think that’s also a very important dimension of our projects.

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