CHECK the sole of your shoe. It may not carry the “chasing arrows” of the recycling logo but chances are it is made of recycled rubber. And the rubber mats and components in your car? They could have been parts of a tyre previously.
Rubber waste is one material that has no place in landfills for it can be reclaimed and reused. And at the Rubplast factory in Meru, Selangor, what was once rubber discards has become raw material.
The company processes 500 tonnes of rubber waste each month, turning them into reclaimed rubber that is mostly exported to rubber product manufacturers abroad.
Rubplast was set up in 1988 as a joint venture between Malaysian Rubber Development Corporation (Mardec) and Bombay-based India Coffee and Tea Distribution Company, in response to the problem of rubber waste.
Muniandy Chellamuthu took over the factory in 1998, bringing with him 36 years of experience in the rubber industry. He had previously worked in plantation companies, Mardec and a glove factory.
“Recycling rubber waste contributes to a cleaner environment by using indestructible rubber discards as well as lowering production costs as reclaimed rubber is cheaper than virgin or natural rubber,” says the company managing director.
He says with the escalating price of natural rubber, from RM3 a kg three years ago to RM8.35 today, as well as the surge in petroleum prices which has raised prices of petroleum-based synthetic rubber, it makes sense to turn to reclaimed rubber.
“Rubplast has reclaimed 70,000 tonnes of rubber waste since it was set up. Can you imagine if all that went to the landfill?”
At the Rubplast factory, rubber glove waste, both rejects from manufacturers as well as soiled ones from factories, form 35% of the waste that is recycled. Others are scraps from rubber product manufacturers, rubber treads, rubber fleshing (scraps from tyre manufacturers), nylon-belted tyres, tubes and rubber foam (from cushions and mattresses). The waste is obtained from factories and through middlemen.
The rubber waste is ground to powder and then devulcanised with the aid of oils and chemicals (a reversal of the process which hardens rubber latex with the addition of sulphur) to become soft reclaimed rubber. This is done under high heat in a cooking chamber.
Rubber gloves are processed into reclaimed rubber at the Rubplast factory. – Pictures by S.S Kanesan
The reclaimed material is then refined into thin sheets by passing through a series of rollers. The sheets are then built up into blocks for ease of handling.
Chellamuthu says by mixing different types of rubber waste, he can produce reclaimed rubber to meet the needs of his customers in India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Australia, United States, Canada, Indonesia, China, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar.
The reclaimed rubber is used to make a wide range of rubber products such as tyre treads and inner tubes, carpet underlayer, hoses and beltings, rubber mats, agricultural wheel, shoe soles, flooring for playgrounds and indoor recreational rooms, sealants and adhesives. Reclaimed rubber powder is sold to India for use as road surfacing.
Selangor, with its many rubber product factories, is a major source of rubber waste. Chellamuthu estimates that factories in the state dump some 500 tonnes of rubber waste each month but only 300 tonnes reach recyclers, while the rest ends up in landfills or illegal dumps.
Poor collection, due to a lack of basic recycling infrastructure, is one cause of the poor reclaim rate. For instance, when processing rubber foam waste, Chellamuthu only takes rejects from cushion and mattress manufacturers as such waste is not collected from households.
He laments that in some factories, rubber scraps are still dumped although recyclers pay for the material. “This happens because local authorities allow them to dump. The law must say that if there is technology to recycle rubber waste, then it cannot be dumped but sent to recyclers. Now, there is no law stating that rubber waste must be recycled.”
Chellamuthu believes reclaimed rubber has a future, more so with the declining acreage of rubber estate. But he says the recycling industry needs government support and incentives.
In Singapore, recyclers are paid S$200 (RM460) for every tonne of rubber waste recycled because of their effort in minimising waste.
Chellamuthu recalls an unpleasant experience when he tried to get a loan from the Malaysian Industrial Development Finance five years ago. “I was told that the sector was not a priority area.”
He says government assistance is crucial, especially for the recycling of car tyres as it is a high investment venture. Special equipment is needed to separate the different components of the tyre, such as rubber, steel and fibre, after it is crushed. Waste tyres form the bulk of our rubber waste but these are not being recycled, and are often carelessly dumped.
Chellamuthu feels that the government should give emphasis to recycling rubber waste, especially tyres, due to the large amount of such waste being generated.
The Star-News on June 2006