The Leading Journal for the Tyre Recycling Sector

The Leading Journal for the Tyre Recycling Sector

Talking About Pyrolysis

Is it right that Tyre and Rubber Recycling covers both the good and the bad news about recycling? Here we discuss the good and the bad of the sector – specifically pyrolysis, but the same could be applied to other areas of recycling.

This is ground we have covered before, but let’s be clear, pyrolysis is NOT a new technology; the concept has been around in charcoal production since the Iron Age. As a child, I remember reading about it in an Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazon’s book, from a time when rural charcoal “burning” was still commonplace. As an adult, I remember driving up the M1, and the smell from the Coalite plant always reminded me that I was passing Bolsover.

The first pyrolysis plant I should have visited was the Coalite plant when they were looking to find an alternative to the vast coal market they had just lost. But, unfortunately, I was enroute when they called and cancelled as the receivers were called in. So, as an individual, I have long been aware of the principles of pyrolysis.

As a journalist, I sat in on many pyrolysis project presentations at ETRA. I could almost have made Dr Gisèle Jung’s pyrolysis presentation for her if I needed to. However, Gisele was generalising and discussing the theory of polymer/ tyre pyrolysis, and that is one thing; the reality of making pyrolysis work and be economical was and remains quite another game. That is no sleight on Dr Jung, who is one of the foremost educators in her field.

In modern, western terms, many players have come and gone – many had the wrong idea, and many saw a potential for a fast buck – after all, pyrolysing a tyre gave them steel they could sell, recovered carbon black they could sell, and pyrolysis oil they could sell. What could go wrong?

Well, they might create a char, a black ash containing all the elements added to a tyre that were not removed by the pyrolysis, so they had no recovered carbon black to sell, just a char. Of course, that char needed post-production processing to turn it into a saleable product – but it usually had a long way to go.

The industry saw players “selling” their rCB as a substitute for virgin carbon black, but when tested, it was rarely near the ASTM standards, rather being in the “region of”. Then there was the issue of specification consistency and many players could not sustain any standard because, in the early days, they failed to consider that you only got out what you put in.

Then there was the oil, oh how important the oil was. This journalist recalls sitting in the offices of a would-be major player and being told how there was always a market for the oil. A fraction could be taken off from production and used directly as a diesel fuel, and the rest could quickly be sold as bunker fuel to be burnt at sea, out of the jurisdiction of national governments. Which today, would be a shocking statement to make, yet, as recently as 2022, a representative of an EPR body, TNU’s D. Javier de Jesús suggested that, “Unpurified pyrolytic oil can be used directly as fuel for ships (bunker), while refined oil can have many different applications within the chemical and petrochemical industry, such as biofuels.”

Bunker Fuel has been subject to a very tight restriction since March 2020. “The IMO 2020 regulation, which went into effect Jan. 1, lowered the maximum amount of sulphur in fuel allowed to be burned by a ship from 3.5% to 0.5%. Starting March 1, ships found merely storing — not just burning — high-sulphur, non-compliant fuel will be in violation of the regulation. Ships outfitted with a scrubber system that can clean higher sulphur fuel exhaust gas after it’s burned in the engine are exempt.”

I thank Rob Harper at Circtec for bringing that point to my attention.

So, even at the highest levels of the recycling sector, people still need to comprehend the output of the pyrolysis project fully. TNU supplies feedstock to Spain’s Greenval, so it should have better understood the market.

Then there is the danger of fraud in any pioneering sector of the market. For example, Tyre and Rubber Recycling has lost count of the number of projects making claims and showing pyrolysis plants that do not exist. 

Pyrolysis goes by many names, as Martin von Wolfersdorff, a leading industry consultant, has correctly stated, to avoid the stigma attached to the term “pyrolysis”. However, there is good reason for the aversion to the title “pyrolysis”, for it brings with it a lot of baggage.

However, pyrolysis, properly executed, has a huge future as an element in the circular economy. It does have the potential to generate oil; It does have the potential to generate recovered and sustainable carbon blacks. It clearly can deliver high-quality recycled steel. It can be used to reduce fossil fuel use and improve the sustainability of end products.

Allowing for the terminology used, modern European pyrolysis, in particular, is a far cry from even the old Coalite plant in the UK. There is rarely any release of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. Plants are well maintained, well managed, and clean, essentially emitting little save Carbon Dioxide from the fuel recovered being used to create energy to run the pyrolysis plants. Offtake gasses are combusted, and nitrogen is used to create the anaerobic chamber that allows the pyrolysis to take place. European legislation of emissions is perhaps the highest in the world.

Modern pyrolysis plants function on getting as much out of the raw material as possible – venting combustible gases or flaring them off is not desired at all. The process is required to be clean and green. Operators will either fraction off their oil at source, recycle syngas, capture nitrogen, and create a dry char as free from volatiles as is possible.

The oil, fractioned off, or crude, can be used or sent to a refinery. However, players such as Enviro believe that it is not their job to refine the oil, and their plant collects the oil, and it is sent to a refiner for further processing.

BASF invested in Pyrum in Germany and New Energy in Hungary as they saw the benefits of taking oil from these pyrolysis operators and using it as the basis for developing new petrochemical-based products – particularly textiles.

Others have seen the development of sustainable carbon blacks by taking pyrolysis oil and using that as an alternate source to fossil fuels.

Michelin and Bridgestone have both begun addressing the framework for the marketing of recovered carbon blacks. They jointly elected to go to the industry and tell them what they wanted and needed, a reversal of a quarter of a century of the pyrolysis sector taking what they produced and dangling it in front of the tyre manufacturers in the hope that they might bite.

With tyre manufacturers around the world starting to increase the acceptance of and the volumes of recovered/ sustainable carbon blacks, the industry has turned a corner. In the USA, Europe, South Korea, and South Africa, the pyrolysis industry has started to make inroads into fundamental markets, with genuine products that are indeed environmentally sound.

Michelin is a significant shareholder in Enviro and is developing Enviro’s technology to recycle mining tyres in Chile. There, also, Kal Tire is using pyrolysis to process its mining tyre arisings and taking it into a graphene and battery market. In South Korea, LD Carbon is supplying Sumitomo. Around the world, tyre manufacturers are starting to increase their acceptance and use of clearly specified and consistent rCB in their new tyres. Just ten years ago, this was still a pipedream.

Tyre and Rubber Recycling has spoken with several modern pyrolysis operators – Bolder, Enviro, Contec, Pyrum, Pyrolyx (as was),Black Bear Carbon, and Carlton Forest to name but a few. In addition, we have listened to presentations from many well-intentioned players, and sadly, a few misguided, and even one or two verging on the criminal.

Now, we can look at the European model and hold this up today as the best practice for meeting the highest environmental standards. And that is absolutely fantastic, and it is fitting that we can and will do that.

Last year we spoke to Vishesh Aggarwal from India’s All India Rubber and Tyre Recycling Association. Aggarwal argued that tyres imported into India were often cut down for separate uses. Furthermore, Pyrolysis was only part of the recycling process, taking the elements other sectors did not want.

That makes perfect sense, though; if the reclaim and granulate sector only takes the “choice” parts of the tyres, what goes into the pyrolysis process? And what comes out of that process? There are always more questions than answers.

However, not all is well in the pyrolysis world, it is still seen in some markets as a quick way to make money, and the equipment to do so can be bought relatively cheaply.  The result is that in some markets, some truly awful practices are taking place. The most active in addressing these poor practices in India, where the CPCB has been pushed by the National Green Tribunal and the government to act against polluting plants that use low-tech solutions to pyrolyse tyres. In some cases, using old brick kilns to burn tyres of simple autoclaves where they draw off oil, but the wet sludge left after pyrolysis is burned or landfilled. So, it is an ongoing battle for the authorities, fighting against what has become a traditional and low-cost practice.

In India, the authorities hope to encourage pyrolysis operators to adopt the Standard Operating Practice specified by the government. That SOP is constantly being improved as technology and the economy permits.

Other markets are trailing, and Tyre and Rubber Recycling has picked up on stories of pyrolysis plants being closed by the environmental authorities in Pakistan. We, of course, cannot verify these, but they often refer to corruption and industrial blackmail, as well as pollution issues.

We have also reported on questionable plant operations in Malaysia (including criminal proceedings), the Philippines and Uganda. Unfortunately, the dark side of pyrolysis is often hidden in Asian or developing African markets where there are few environmental regulations. Sadly, not everyone feels the need to protect the environment.

These are growing markets; the car fleets in countries like Nigeria are increasing exponentially, and so, therefore, are their waste tyre arisings. It does not take a rocket scientist to guess what is likely to happen if they are presented with cheap equipment and the idea that they can create a sellable oil by “burning” tyres.

Tyre and Rubber Recycling is a sector-specific publication. However, our reach is international and many in developing nations looking for inspiration look at Tyre and Rubber Recycling as an introduction to the industry. If we have one, our role is to publicise all we can about the tyre recycling industry, good and bad. The good is to show the way ahead, following in the footsteps of the likes of Enviro, Pyrum, or Greenval, to show best practices and what can be achieved.

The other side of the coin also needs coverage to show that whilst there may be an option, it has its downsides. We cannot tell people what to invest in or what to purchase, but we can show the different shades of light and dark in this business within our capability.

If we are frank, it takes maybe five minutes on Youtube to find a video of some clearly questionable operations, and less than a couple of seconds to find some horrifying images of proudly portrayed pyrolysis operations. The wider industry, lobbying groups and the media need to pressurise governments and NGOs to bring about change in those markets where safety and the environment come a poor runner up to making money. The good guys need to be more open about what they do, what they achieve and how they meet their green ideals.

This applies not just to pyrolysis but to the broader recycling sector and the circular model. The developed industries (and governments) must be proactive in guiding developing nations to follow the best path rather than the route of least resistance. We must do our best to ensure that others do not make the same mistakes that Europe and North America did in the Industrial revolution. We have good, effective, clean practices, and we should be helping others access those practices.