A new material, recycled rubber

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Carrying off from his article yesterday, Anthony Umann talks about a new innovation in the rubber industry that can also help keep the environment clean.

Most of us don’t give much thought about what happens once a tire has reached the end of its useful life. We drop our cars off at the shop to have the tires replaced and then we happily drive on our way with a fresh new grip on the road.  Our old tires and what will become of them is not a concern. However, I contend that it should be.

Roughly one billion scrap tires are generated yearly, with another 3 billion sitting in landfills throughout the world. For lack of an alternative, the majority of these End of Life Tires (ELTs) will end up burned as low grade fuel and coal substitute in cement kilns and waste to energy facilities. In the developing world most tires are simply dumped or openly burnt.

Tire burning is a significant contributor to poor air quality while depositing heavy metals into our ecosystem. Visualise almost half a billion tires going up in smoke and this is what is being added to an environment already at risk.

Fortunately not all of the tires are burnt and increasingly more ELTs are being diverted towards more sustainable uses. This involves segregating car and truck tires and then processing the tire rubber into a granulate or powder form.

This black powder from ELTs has many value-added uses, many enabled by new technology. Some of these uses even allow for using the old tires back into new tire production, essentially closing the loop on tire recycling towards a more sustainable, and profitable future.

Sekhar Research Innovations (SRI Elastomers), a Malaysian recycling and Cleantech startup, has developed innovative technology that uses powder derived from ELTs as a feedstock for a new material, recycled compound, that can go directly back into the production of  rubber products including new tires.

Using recycled material back in the production of new tires has been considered impossible by the rubber industry until recently. This is because of the technological challenges involved with breaking the powerful chemical and molecular bonds that develop during rubber vulcanisation without extensively damaging the polymer.

By “cracking the nut” of this long standing and difficult devulcanisation problem, for the first time, significant quantities of ELTs can now be used back in the rubber industry.

The industrial, economic and environmental impact of a viable solution for rubber recycling will change our industry for the better, increasing profits while helping the environment.

Soon we’ll view old tires as something of value and not just a most difficult waste to be dealt with or dumped. This change in perception will not only lead to cleaner air as less tires are burned, but ultimately more stability in the price of tires as recycled material helps makes up the gap for future rubber shortages.

Malaysia Innovating

Malaysiais known globally as a leader in the rubber industry, having made several major contributions and innovations throughout the last half century. Until today, SMR (Standard Malaysian Rubber) is a global standard for indexing natural rubber quality.

Here in Malaysia, there is much work to be done including planning and formalising tire collection for the estimated 20 to 25 million ELTs that are generated here yearly.

The supply chain of domestic tires for recycling is directly connected to solid waste management. Relevant government agencies and stakeholders must work in concert to ensure the growing stream of ELTs move towards eco-friendly uses like recycling instead of less sustainable practices like burning or dumping.

Planning towards a formalised tire collection system in peninsular Malaysia would be beneficial as would allowing local recyclers to import raw material so long as they can demonstrate they’re creating real value and don’t damage the environment in the process.

Once again, researchers, industry and government are working towards a more sustainable future for the rubber industry. Like previous challenges, moving towards a cleaner environment and healthier air for our kids to breathe is a war worth winning.

 Photo credit: Flickr user Vagawi.

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