A pandemic, floods, load shedding and escalating economic woes have not kept this British entrepreneur from investing in South Africa, writes Shirley le Guern.
Dr Mehran Zarrebini’s passion for recycling rubber tyres emerged after his family’s business, PFE International, purchased the country’s oldest carpet brand, Van Dyck. More than 10 years ago Mehran’s search for recycled rubber crumb for the manufacture of acoustic underlays that cushion sound in high-rise buildings – as well as related products such as flooring and paving for gyms, fitness areas and playgrounds, ballistic tiles and livestock mats – took him to a very small factory in New Germany.
It was one of the first small enterprises that had begun to repurpose the growing pile of waste tyres fast becoming an environmental hazard.
He invested in the company, relocating it and its 10 employees to Hammarsdale, where he commissioned a new R15-million plant and grew an industry leader that today employs more than 150 people from the neighbouring community.
A lot has happened over the past decade, he admits. Despite being forced to shut down the carpeting business, he continued selling value added rubber-based products under the Van Dyck brand.
The pandemic may have confined him to the UK with his family, but he was back in early 2022, ready to hit the ground running. He tells how he managed to relocate equipment used to manufacture rubber-based products from Van Dyck’s Prospecton factory just days before the entire South Durban Industrial Basin flooded last year.
Mehran says the pandemic enabled the company to strategise and plan for future growth and developing new, innovative products that can be both used locally and exported. Already, large amounts of raw recycled rubber crumb are shipped. Their product has been used to build world-class hockey and soccer fields across Africa, and used in the manufacture of paint and coatings.
Mathe Group processes around 700 radial truck tyres per day and has increased capacity to around 25 to 30 tons of rubber crumb per day. The upcoming commissioning of new plant is expected to utilise 1 000 tyres per day and increase output to 45 tons per day. There are also advanced plans to add a whole new line that will double output.
But meanwhile, Mehran has become something of a champion for recycling of waste tyres both in South Africa and abroad.
He paints an alarming picture. In 2011, when government first considered tackling the waste tyre problem, the country generated about 246 631 tons of waste tyres, of which only 4% was recycled. They introduced a tyre waste management plan. Consumers would pay a levy of R2.30 per tyre and an independent body known as REDISA, the Recycling and Economic Development Initiative of South Africa, would collect and store them in a nationwide network of depots for redistribution to recyclers such as Mathe Group.
The levy remains but REDISA has been liquidated and, more than ever, waste tyres are accumulating across the country, according to Mehran.
The distribution of waste truck tyres now falls under the Waste Bureau and the industry awaits a whole new plan for recycling. This body doesn’t have up-to-date statistics regarding waste tyre accumulation in South Africa. However, during 2018/19, South Africa is believed to have generated approximately 300 000 tons of waste tyre material. Of this, 89% was passenger tyres and 11% truck tyres.
To support government in its bid to resolve this and to help re-establish South Africa’s rubber recycling industry, Mehran recently founded the Tyre Recycling Industry Association of South Africa (TRIASA). Through this, he aims to support government whilst also encouraging the inclusion of rubber waste in products used for infrastructure projects – such as the road resurfacing that is gathering momentum between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
He is also leading by example. As the CEO of a business that relies heavily on electricity, he recently installed massive solar panels on the roof of the Hammarsdale factory. “This accounts for half of our energy usage and has been a very proactive way of tackling the energy crisis. We are a sustainable company, so it makes sense that we use energy sustainably as well,” he says.