Honda's green claims fail to stand up

Misleading environmental claims have been made by Honda in an advertising campaign for its latest model, the New Accord. The firm has exaggerated the vehicle's recyclability, as well as comparing its carbon dioxide emissions favourably with an EC standard which does not exist.

EC countries are currently negotiating a draft Directive on end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) issued last year (ENDS Report 270, pp 39-40 ). The proposal would require all new vehicles to be 85% reusable or recyclable and 95% reusable or recoverable by 2005.

In Japan, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) are encouraging domestic car companies to raise their "recyclability" targets to over 90% for vehicles launched from 2002. But, confusingly, the term is defined as including energy recovery as well as material recycling. Both Nissan and Mitsubishi have brought forward this target to 2000, claiming they are already achieving 85% "recyclability" for new models - chiefly through greater use of polypropylene (PP).

In recent months, "recyclability" has been used as part of Honda UK's marketing strategy for the New Accord, with newspaper advertisements claiming: "Whichever colour you choose, your New Accord will be green." The company boasts that the model is 91.9% "recyclable" - "easily surpassing the European Community's demands of 85% by the year 2005", and that it has made the model's CO2 emissions "a mere 33.5% of the EC's maximum permitted levels." It adds: "Instead of just a pale excuse for green, you get a rich, deep, thoughtful green."

However, thoughtfulness seems to have been in short supply at Honda. The figure of 91.9% actually refers to the car's recoverability - and so is three percentage points below the proposed EC target of 95% by 2005. And its CO2 cannot be 33.5% of EC permitted levels because no such levels have been set. According to the Advertising Standards Authority, the advert has already attracted a public complaint.

A spokesman for Honda admitted that it had "probably made a mistake" and was unlikely to use the advert in future, but was quick to point out that the Committee of Advertising Practice - an advertising industry body which gives advice on copy - had seen it beforehand. However, the Committee, which does not assume any responsibility for the adverts it assesses, probably told Honda that the copy was fine provided it could substantiate the claims.

Despite the confusion over the advertising campaign, Honda, like other car manufacturers, is seeking to make a larger proportion of its new models recyclable and says that the development of a new instrument panel made entirely from PP has increased the Accord's recyclable thermoplastics content from 3.2% to 5.7%. Typically, instrument panels are made by superimposing a PVC skin and PP foam over an ABS plastic base - a mix of materials which would demand difficult separation processes if recycling was to be carried out.

Until recently, PP skins were restricted to simple surfaces such as door linings because of their tendency to tear. To overcome this, Honda adopted a PP blending technology which achieves the necessary stretching and strength characteristics allowing for high-temperature, complex forming. As well as increasing recyclability, the new instrument panel has cut production costs. Elsewhere, "difficult to recycle PVC" has been eliminated from the door linings, and door arm rests are now made of polyolefins rather than a PVC top layer over a nylon base.

Meanwhile, Ford has claimed that its vehicles "are now typically 85% recyclable" - which, if true, means it has reached the proposed EC recyclability target seven years ahead of schedule. Assuming that other manufacturers have kept pace with Ford, the target appears less than challenging.

The draft Directive would require the European Commission to establish a standard for measuring "recyclability". However, the car industry remains hopeful of deleting the recyclability target on the grounds that agreeing a definition is too complicated.

"Recyclability is a bit of a myth," according to David Hulse of the UK Automotive Consortium on Recycling and Disposal (ACORD). "It will vary according to the recycling infrastructure available in a given Member State or region. For example, what is the point in being able to dismantle certain components if there are no facilities to recycle them? Reaching a consensus on this issue will be quite a task for the Commission."

The industry's efforts to solve the problem appear to have run into the sand. Although industry representatives agreed in Tokyo last March to continue work on an international standard, last month the European Council for Automotive R&D abandoned its attempt to draw up common guidelines.

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