The burning tyres of Cobbs Wood (updated)

Tyres burning in Cobbs Wood – picture supplied by author

There was a big fire at a scrap tyre depot in Cobbs Wood, Ashford in September, with smoke plumes drifting over most of Ashford. Local resident Charlotte Lebon has investigated what was behind the problem.

Tyres cannot easily be recycled. Stores of tyres are combustible and the cause in this case was a huge number of tyres that caught fire, due to an electrical fault. Neither can tyres be buried with scrap, as fires can start there and can burn for years!

So why were thousands of used tyres stacked in combustible heaps? “The tyre company has been there six years, permitted by the Environment Agency,” said workers on a neighbouring site. “In fact, their inspectors were there on the day of the fire. They used to ship them to India.”

Exporting the problem

What the Ashford dealer was doing until recently was legally exporting potential air-pollution to India. This is the British solution to a surplus of scrap tyres.

But last year, India brought in higher fees for importers, likely to make a business such as the Ashford scrap tyre store unviable. Hence the reason for the tyre heaps! In 2018, the UK sent 263,000 tonnes of used tyres to India, while others went to Malaysia.

Firstly, they have to be chopped up and the metal rings taken out. The metal can be melted down, and some tyre pellets can be used for soft surfaces (sports grounds and Australian byways), but there is not enough demand for these to match the huge quantity of scrap tyres.

Another process, called pyrolysis, can be used to decompose the tyres into oil and carbon black and some gases. The oil can then be bought by oil companies to blend with their products. Carbon black has various uses, including use in ink-jet printers, dark dyes, and even solid fuel (which would then, when burnt, add to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere).

In recent years, because Chinese pyrolysis plants can be bought for about $30,000, there has been an increase of scrap tyre plants in rural parts of India. These are basic and many are not operated properly: 270 such plants, out of 637, were found to be non-compliant in India, thus endangering the health of workers with poisonous air-pollution. This can cause skin and eye irritation at least, and death from heart attacks and lung cancers at worst.

As a result, the Indian Enviro Court has now legislated for a total ban on the import of scrap tyres.

Some EU countries have done better. France and Spain have laws which force tyre manufacturers to pay for the cost of disposing tyres properly. The technology for doing this has improved in the last two years. For countries that can afford it, a circular economy can be set up where the products from a high-tech pyrolysis plant can be sold on to make new products profitably, without pollution and poisoning.

What do other countries do?

In South Africa, about five years ago, they decided the solution to problems of waste was to ensure that they are given value. So they taxed every scrap of tyre rubber that entered the country, set up an agency, REDISA, to get this money, which it would use to pay anyone, large tyre dealer, or poor waste-picker, who gave back the scrap tyres. The intention was then to invest the bulk of the rubber import tariffs in a high-tech pyrolysis plant. Sadly, the money disappeared before it got invested and REDISA disappeared in a trail of corruption.

Such a plant needs to be sited near a source of carbon-neutral electricity. A Danish company is doing this on the coast near a North Sea windfarm, with capacity to recycle most of Scandinavia’s scrap tyres. The Michelin tyre company has just bought a large share of the Swedish company Enviro to use its technology at another plant, location yet to be decided.

And in the UK?

Should regulations be introduced which oblige tyre companies to bear the cost of disposal, to force them to research re-usable operations? The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has said it has plans to make tyre producers responsible for disposal. But no has been taken action yet, as most DEFRA officials are preoccupied with Brexit, so there is unlikely to be legislation on this any time soon.

Just as with the Grenfell disaster, failures are apparent in oversight and government decision-making. This fire reveals how we are complicit in negligence, in ignoring the fact that those tyres were piling up because India no longer wants our tyres killing poor villagers.

Without a circular economy involving recycling, scrap tyres will continue to be a problem. Not just cars, but lorries, tractors and even the “green transport” of electric cars, hydrogen buses and bicycles. They all scrap tyres. And we just don’t care enough to enquire exactly how they are disposed of.

Pile of used tyres.

Meanwhile, the tyres in Ashford continue to pile up…

“flat tires ho!” by erix! 

UPDATE: Message from Author from Environment Agency

The Site in Hanover Close Cobbs Wood Ashford has piled up more scrap tyres SINCE,according to your email, the permit was withdrawn on 5 October. See attached photo taken yesterday.

What enforcement action is being taken ?

Response from Enviroment Agency Office:

Please be assured we are aware of this site and are currently investigating activities there. Thank you for sending through the photo.

With regards to our enforcement action at the moment I can confirm that the Environment Agency has served a Section 59(1)(a) Notice, in accordance with the Environmental Protection Act 1990, to remove the waste on site and we are monitoring progress and compliance with this Notice. As the site is subject to an active investigation I am limited in what I can share with regards to our ongoing enforcement action.

(This article was updated on 31 January 2021 to reflect the interchange between the author and the Environment Agency)