Owen Douglas is waiting, and willing, to take all of New Zealand’s discarded tyres – some four million of them each year.
Each year about four million tyres are discarded in New Zealand. They are sent to farms and landfills, or simply dumped down gullies and piled on the side of the road. Over time, the tyres that are no longer fit for a vehicle have become an environmental nightmare – or put more bluntly, a sore on the landscape.
No one, really, has taken full responsibility for disposing of the worn-out tyres in this country.
Under the Basel Convention, limiting movements of hazardous waste between nations, the disused tyres cannot be exported. Nearly 600,000 tyres, for instance, were dumped on a Land Information New Zealand property at Napier four years ago, and the remaining half of them are now being removed because of the fire risk.
Many of the tyres are just being re-located to another site in Kerepehi near Ngatea with the intention of using them for retaining walls.
Enter Owen Douglas, an ex-Waikato farmer now living in Tauranga. Through his company Carbon Recovery, he is about to import a US$1m tyre shredding machine from Columbus McKinnon Corporation, based in Sarasota, Florida.
Mr Douglas will be leasing an old dairy company shed at the Waharoa Industrial Park to house the machine. At one fell swoop, he will be able to handle all four million of the country’s discarded tyres each year. Suddenly, those tyre piles, and the landscape, will be cleaned up.
The tyres, all sizes from a car’s to an excavator’s, will be shredded into 10.16cm rubber chips and sent to South Korea as tyre-derived fuel (TDF) for an Asia Cement Co plant 150km inland from Seoul. Over the past decade, a determined Mr Douglas has attended and spoken at conferences in the United States, talked to experts in Japan, Italy, Canada and South America, approached coal-fired boiler operators in New Zealand and the two big tyre manufacturers - Dunlop including Goodyear, and Bridgestone which owns Firestone.
Burning the tyres for fuel is commonplace overseas, and Mr Douglas became more and more convinced that this was the answer for New Zealand. The tyre chips can be mixed with coal, wood waste or gas in a 10/90 per cent ratio and used as fuel for concrete kilns, power plants or paper mills. TDF is hotter than coal and produces more energy, but there is debate over its toxin production.
So here’s the rub, delivered by a modest but inquiring Mr Douglas. "The lime in the cement plants absorb everything and reduce the emissions. A tyre contains 25 per cent steel and when it goes through a cement plant it oxidises and becomes powder - that’s a benefit.
"One tonne of tyre chips (TDF) is equivalent to 1.6t of coal to power a cement plant, reducing costs," he said.
After a decade of research and development, Mr Douglas found a solution with the South Koreans.
It all started 12 years ago when Mr Douglas became involved in selling fly ash, the residue from the coal-fired boiler at the NZ Dairy Co in Te Awamatu. He went to a cement industry conference in Las Vegas to learn more about marketing fly ash and ended up hearing about the process of burning tyres for fuel.
Back home, he interested the NZ Dairy Company into processing tyres at its coal-fired Waitoa factory but the initiative never got started as a result of the Fonterra restructuring. Undaunted, Mr Douglas visited Coalcorp, Genesis Power, Golden Bay Cement, Holcim Cement, Pan Pacific and Kinleith Pulp and Paper Mill, but for one reason and another they decided not to use their kilns for burning tyres.
Mr Douglas had spent six years reaching this point, and after further visits to the United States, Columbus McKinnon suggested he visit Asia Cement.
"I went to South Korea four years ago and at the first meeting they said they will take all the tyre chips I can provide. The meeting took 10 minutes," said Mr Douglas.The Koreans wanted the chips in bulk – a shipment of 15,000t or l.5 million tyres – but in the end he couldn’t find a site big enough to store that amount, though the Fulton Hogan quarry at Poplar Lane, Papamoa, and Northport in Whangarei were possibilities.
The worry was that a pile that size would become a fire risk if it reached a temperature of 600C.
A year later, Mr Douglas went back to the Koreans and told them he could send smaller amounts in 20-foot equivalent containers. They agreed, so long as the supply was guaranteed – and they would even consider paying for them.
"They will take all the chips I can supply," said Mr Douglas."New Zealand discards four to five million car tyre equivalents (the bigger truck tyres make up five units) each year, and to begin with I’m planning on supplying two million tyres or 20,000t. That’s 1000 containers (sent through Port of Tauranga)."