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Changing landscape leaves car recyclers big shoes to fill

Switzerland currently recycles around 150 000 end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) every year. This represents 80-85% of the discarded fleet. At the same time, consumers buy around 300 000 cars, 25 000 vans and 4 000 heavy commercial vehicles annually, reports Foundation Auto Recycling Switzerland. These cars reach an average age of 16 years.

The Swiss recycling chain comprises around 70 dismantlers and seven large shredder plants. The country’s second biggest city, Geneva, was the backdrop for the International Automobile Recycling Congress (IARC) where delegates were eager to convene after 18 months of on-and-off-again lockdowns.

A modern ELV Directive

A big point of discussion was updating the EU’s ELV Directive which dates back to 2000. The idea is to base the regulation on a life-cycle approach ‘to set the automotive sector on a circular path’. The European Commission plans to present a proposal to remove the most polluting end-of-life vehicles from EU roads by the end of next year, Green Deal commissioner Frans Timmermans has stated.

Another important objective of the updated directive includes mandating recycled content for certain plastic components in new vehicles. The amount of plastic and carbon fibre used in cars has increased significantly in recent years but recycling these materials lags behind. Trade organisation EuRIC is calling on lawmakers to set a binding target for post-consumer thermoplastics (polymers that can be continually melted and recast) in new cars of 25% by 2025, 30% by 2030 and 35% by 2035.

Meanwhile, the scope of the ELV Directive may be extended to cover other vehicles such as trucks and motorcycles, Artemis Hatzi-Hull of the EU’s DG for Environment tells delegates. ‘Obviously, a lot has changed in the last 21 years in terms of car design, global trade rules and best available recycling technology.’

‘Free trade is good’

Hatzi-Hull notes that the EU also wants to make sure that ‘old polluting cars no longer circulate’ in other regions of the world. ‘We are not allowed to export hazardous waste and end-of-life vehicles count as hazardous waste,’ she points out. ‘I believe that non-functional cars are waste, not used cars. Therefore it’s not fair to ship them off to third world countries. If something becomes waste in a specific country, I think it should be treated there. Today, however, this is what’s happening. Let’s prevent this in the future and not close our eyes.’

In the words of Alejandro Navazas, a scientific officer with EuRIC, these vehicles are ‘zombie cars’. He estimates that around four million of them ‘fall off the radar’ each year, exported to distant countries.

These statements sparked a passionate debate. ‘I am afraid that the car industry will move out of Europe, just like with the steel industry,’ observes conference panellist Roger Burri, owner of Metal Depot Zurich. ‘We have too many levies as it is and more are coming. As of this year, we have to pay for non-recycled plastics. What’s next? It’s becoming very unattractive to do business in Europe.’

In his view, EU policies are totally contradictory. ‘There are conflicting interests – especially regarding exports,’ Burri says. ‘When we review statistics, we are quick to express concern when the figures don’t add up the way we like. The term we use is ‘missing cars’. But who says these cars are missing? We have free trade. We know where they are. They go to repair workshops and traders in developing countries. They’re not waste. They may be to us but not to everyone. We are not the god of Africa.

Amélie Sophie Salau, environmental policy director for the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, insists free trade is best. ‘We have to be able to export cars if we want but we also need clarity. The main thing is monitoring movement of ELVs in and out of Europe. Then we know exactly what’s going on, who is involved, and then we can ensure that the right practices are used to process exported vehicles. You might say it’s a virtual problem. There are gaps in the system.’

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