As the Southern African region gears up for an expected mining boom, concerns about the adverse environmental impacts of discarded mining tyres continue to grow.
By Leon Louw owner of WhyAfrica and editor of the WhyAfrica magazine
It has been a good 18 months for mining in Southern Africa. While several greenfield projects have come online, a number of brownfield developments and expansions, especially in South Africa, have lifted the mood after a sombre 2021.
With the world moving towards a much touted Just Energy Transition, Southern African miners have probably not been this bullish since they watched the last super cycle with folded arms come and go in the early 2000’s.
The uptick is confirmed by John Martin, Vice President: Southern Africa, Kal Tire’s Mining Tire Group. Martin says that the company has seen a significant increase in demand for its tyre management services from underground mining operations, which forms the bulk of Kal Tire’s business in South Africa.
“But there has been a range of new mining projects coming online as well as expansions of existing mines across the Southern African region,” Martin tells WhyAfrica.
“We’re seeing an increase in demand for our services so business this year is certainly looking much better than 2022. Southern Africa is showing very good numbers with increased activity in South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe,” says Martin.
More mining means more large mining tyres reaching the end of their life sooner, which is not necessarily bad for business when you’re a tyre management company like Kal Tire. However, when those gargantuan rubber giants cannot be salvaged any longer, they need to be disposed of, and in most cases that creates an eyesore and environmental headache for large mining companies.
Growing mountains of discarded tyres
This has prompted Kal Tire to find a solution. Historically, tyres were either buried underground, shredded, or repurposed as safety berms along haul roads, for example. The problem is that tyres don’t degrade, and after years of mining, mountains of used tyres have sprung up in and around the Platinum Belt and Manganese Basin of South Africa, the diamond strip in southern Botswana and the Copper Belt Province in Zambia.
Stockpiles of discarded Off the Road Tyres (OTRs) are not only an eyesore and health and safety risk, but a serious Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) risk as well. Furthermore, government regulations in Africa, and especially in South Africa, does not encourage recycling of these tyres. Even if they did, governments do not have the capacity or know how to manage and handle the deluge of end-of-life tyres that flood the landscape after they have served their purpose.
In South Africa, for instance, a tyre recycling tax of R2.30 per kilogram of tyre is paid by all end users, where the bulk of this tax is currently used by the responsible government departments to rent land and pay contractors to transport some of the smaller mining tyres to these dumpsites. This is neither a holistic nor a sustainable solution for the recycling of giant OTR mining tyres.
According to Kal Tire’s Dan Allan, SVP Mining Tire Group, the tax rebate might cover the recovery and shredding of a passenger car tyre or a light truck or bus tyre, but it will not even cover a fraction of the costs to handle and transport a five-tonne mining tyre from the mining property to the final destination.
Perfecting the art of tyre recycling
Chile, the largest copper producer and the second largest lithium producer in the world, is grappling with similar challenges. However, regulations in Chile are not as prescriptive as in South Africa, and it is here, amongst the arid hills and hummocks of the Atacama Desert that Kal Tire has perfected the art of tyre recycling.
With room to manoeuvre and a blank canvas, the company, in a joint venture partnership with Japanese giant Mitsui & Co., have ventured into the circular economy and painted a picture of what tyre recycling should look like in an ideal world.
Mining is king in the Antofagasta region of Chile. With the biggest copper mines on earth providing a continuous flow of tyres right on Kal Tire’s doorstep in La Negra, the company certainly has enough fodder to feed its one-of-a kind thermal conversion plant, now up and running and already making a significant dent in the growing stockpiles of waste tyres that has piled up over many years along the access routes traversing the Atacama Desert.
Kal Tire and Mitsui’s facility in Chile is tyre recycling at a next level. If you think it’s a dirty old pyrolysis plant dressed up for a traditional Chilean Asado, think again. Gone is the belching smoke and the thin carbon layer covering the floor and equipment. Inefficient kilns and white-eyed males covered in carbon black from head to toe has made way for state-of-the art technology and innovative female engineers.
Allan says that the company has learned a lot about tyre recycling over the last seven years trying to find a sustainable solution for managing old tyres in Chile.
“Along the way we had to address engineering challenges, handling challenges, heating challenges and compliance issues. But we are pretty happy with the end result, although we are the first to admit that this plant is not perfect,” Allan told WhyAfrica during our visit to the plant in Chile recently.
According to Rodrigo Reyes, Kal Tire’s Recycling Plant Manager, the automation of different processes has contributed to overcome many of the challenges that the team had to overcome. “This has granted continuity, efficiency and safety to our work,” he says.
“Our initial goal was to help our customers deal with the waste tyres. But we wanted to do it in a manner that took us up the ladder of the hierarchy. So, we would look at ways in which we could take care of the entire tyre for the customer and in the process leave as little residual impact at the end of the day as we possibly could,” says Allan.
One of a kind thermal process
Kal Tire’s thermal conversion involves subjecting the tyres to high temperatures, with the aim of returning them to their original components namely pyrolytic oil, steel and recovered carbon black.
Kal Tire tested its thermal process in Italy in 2018 and 2019 and obtained good results. Construction of the plant in Antofagasta began in 2020 and the company has been carrying out test work on the plant since 2021.
The last significant milestone of this project was the formation of the joint venture between Kal Tire and Mitsui, whose purpose is to advance mining tyre recycling around the world.
This is the only operating dedicated Off-the-Road (OTR) tyre recycling facility in the world. The result of our work demonstrates that it is possible to offer a response for ELT treatment, according to the needs of our clients and in compliance with government regulations, and that we can implement it in the market.
After its success in Antofagasta the Kal Tire team hopes to replicate the Chile model in other parts of the world, including Africa, Australia and Canada. In South Africa, the issue has become critical, and more and more people are raising their concerns about a problem that just doesn’t go away.
WhyAfrica visited Kal Tire’s thermal conversion plant in Chile in June and July. The article appears in our July Road Trip Preview magazine which is now available in print and in digital format.
Continue following WhyAfrica on social media and subscribe to our newsletters and magazines to read more about Chile, mining in Chile and Kal Tires’ operations in Africa. To subscribe to WhyAfrica bi-weekly newsletters and magazine click on the link https://www.whyafrica.co.za/subscribe/
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Kal Tire eyes Africa’s rubber mountains after recycling success in Chile
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Kal Tire eyes Africa’s rubber mountains after recycling success in Chile