Tyres are built to last — and that’s a problem when it is time to recycle them. Michael Vainer is one engineer looking at how to break down this hardy product.
Engineers and scientists all over the country are quietly plugging away at the gargantuan waste problem on Australia’s horizon.
One would-be problem-solver is Michael Vainer, inventor and founder of Polymeric Powders Company. He has been trying to develop solutions for tyre waste for more than a decade and a half.
Vainer is generally quiet about his efforts. He is not on LinkedIn, his company’s website reveals few details, and he has given few interviews. Asked about the collection of patents with his name on them — they have nothing to do with recycling — he answers simply: “I have conducted a lot of research, and accordingly have a number of patents.”
Tyres are a terribly hard thing to recycle effectively. They are, by design, highly durable. Made of tough vulcanised rubber, they are reinforced with steel belts and use different polymers for different components, such as beads, belts, sidewall and tread.
The equivalent of 56 million passenger car tyres are discarded annually, according to Tyre Stewardship Australia, with only 10 per cent of this recycled. In the 2018–19 financial year, 100,000 t of tyres were exported, with 80 per cent of this to India and Malaysia, where they were mainly burned or pyrolysed.
Even the option to export this problem — resulting in pollution at the other end — is disappearing. From the beginning of this year, unprocessed glass exports were banned, with mixed plastics to follow in July, and whole-baled tyres in December.
Vainer’s attention was initially drawn to tyre disposal challenges through a company he founded, Worldwide Trade Corporation.
“[It] gave me the opportunity to be involved with Russian tyre manufacturer AMTEL,” he told create, “enabling me to see the global problem of the lack of environmentally sustainable disposing of end-of-life tyres firsthand.”
In response, he co-founded VR Tek Global in 2006, working on a process for cutting and segmenting a tyre into its components. Vainer had previously studied some engineering, mainly “out of interest, but not to become an engineer”.
The technique focused on processing the rubber to devulcanise it and treating it with gas to functionalise the powder’s surface area, aiming to produce recycled material that could substitute for virgin rubber material and at a lower cost.
This involved creating high temperatures through mechanical means.
“However, this still cut sulfur-carbon as well as sulfur-sulfur bonds throughout any input vulcanised rubber material,” explained Vainer, whose then-company was collaborating with Deakin University researchers on chemical treatments.
“[That] was eventually proven to still very substantially degrade the rubber, as well as the rubber still containing steel and fibre,” Vainer said.
“Successfully removing the steel reinforcement was also never achieved by the VR Tek technology, nor was successfully removing the fibre reinforcement. This was all only possible in theory.”
The technology had failed. The company was put into liquidation.
Vainer abandoned efforts to recycle whole end-of-life tyres but continued the quest for environmental sustainability at new company Polymeric Powders.
Vainer switched focus to new polymer-rubber composites, which meant he had to develop new products and processes. He became interested in concurrent engineering processes and completed a Master of Engineering.
Polymeric Powders’ process takes in raw materials from tyre shredders, applies thermal processing followed by a cracking process, then combines the resulting powders with common plastics. The resulting composite material is provided as masterbatch pellets for injection moulding or extrusion, or as filament for 3D printing.
“I have now developed a very controlled surface area devulcanisation approach, which does not degrade the rubber, if I utilise any recycled rubber for my plastic-rubber composite material production,” explained Vainer.
“If the price of specific types of raw rubber drops to an economically viable level, then I can just as easily wholly use it with my new technology for commercially viable plastic-rubber composite material production.”
So far, recognition for Vainer has included reaching the finals of the Australian Technologies Competition in 2015 and receiving support from Tyre Stewardship Australia in 2017 to develop and test a composite for injection moulded flexible irrigation pipes.
Other innovators are also quietly working away on the problem, with an eye on upcoming waste export bans and hopes that more will be done to encourage investment in the much-needed processing infrastructure. Mountains of tyres, plastic and other material will soon have nowhere to go but to landfill or an incinerator.
Vainer believes that Australia is not well placed for the future, because there is limited demand from manufacturers for products from local recyclers of tyre rubber and plastic at current prices.
What’s needed are high value uses from such materials, he said.
“The company should be able to purchase as its inputs the materials produced from Australian recyclers of tyre rubber and plastic, and then utilise them in its processes of producing plastic-rubber composite material for selling as a masterbatch to high value product manufacturers,” Vainer said.
“However, the still necessary finalisation of [research and development] requirements, including the necessary machinery involved, is very costly for a [small enterprise] and requires initial upfront funding and subsidy from government if Australia is going to be serious in addressing this major problem.”
According to Polymeric Powders, its plastic-rubber material offers the benefits of increased shock absorption, crack resistance and insulation. It is suitable as masterbatch for uses including agricultural irrigation drip-pipes, ceiling housing for passive infrared sensors, and electrical metallic tube insulating bushings, among other applications that Vainer is still researching.
Production at the company’s North Geelong site is at research and development level currently. Feedstocks it has used have included specific types of raw rubber, varieties of recycled tyre crumb and commercial plastics. After investigation, Vainer said the company’s business model will need to use recycled plastic to be viable.
“I have therefore been working on adjusting and adding to the technological processes … to be able to take in recycled plastic,” he said.