Car makers claim recycling targets endanger efforts to cut emissions

Mandatory recycling targets for end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) should not be set if they affect car manufacturers’ efforts to reduce the weight of vehicles, according to a life-cycle assessment (LCA) conducted by Eucar, the European car industry’s R&D body. But environmental groups claim the industry could do both if it moved to hybrid engines.

The ELVs Directive makes car manufacturers and importers legally and financially responsible for the take-back and recycling of scrap cars. These "producers" must ensure that 80% of vehicles, by average weight, are reused or recycled and 85% reused or recovered by 2006.

A much more challenging second set of targets for 2015 require 85% reuse and recycling, and 95% reuse and recovery.

However, by "31 December 2005 at the latest" the European Parliament and the Council must re-examine the 2015 targets on the basis of a report and proposal from the European Commission. The report must "take into account the development of the material composition of vehicles and any other relevant environmental aspects related to vehicles."

Car producers have already started to press for the 2015 targets to be reduced, or scrapped altogether. Speaking at a meeting of the parliamentary sustainable waste management group in November, John Hollis of BMW said "recent studies have clearly shown that all this extra recycling will give an environmental disbenefit." He also claimed that "there is no preference for any recycling over recovery."

The car industry’s main argument is that higher recycling targets will jeopardise its efforts to lightweight vehicles by substituting heavy materials, such as steel and other metals with lighter ones, such as plastics. The recycling of automotive plastics is often uneconomic, largely because of the lack of markets and little investment in automated sorting technologies.

The conflict between recycling and light-weighting has intensified as car producers struggle to meet targets negotiated with the Commission for average CO2 emissions for new cars. The lack of progress has prompted some governments to threaten to introduce legislation (ENDS Report 357, pp 50-51 ).

In September, the German automotive and plastics industry associations, the VDA and VKE, issued a joint statement denouncing the ELVs Directive’s "rigid" recycling targets. Unless industry was free to choose the proportion of material sent to materials recycling, feedstock recycling and incineration, manufacturers’ ability to use plastics to lightweight vehicles would be restricted, thereby reducing fuel economy, and leading to more emissions.

Soon afterwards, in December, Eucar announced the completion of its LCA to assess the potential of light-weighting and recycling of vehicles. The study was co-financed by the European Commission.

According to Eucar, the study revealed that efforts to increase recycling or recovery would not significantly reduce the environmental impact of vehicles other than by reducing landfill, whereas light-weighting has the potential to reduce resource depletion, global warming impact and hazardous waste.

As a result, any efforts to reduce the environmental impact of vehicles should balance recycling, vehicle weight and other parameters, but the "narrow focus and inflexibility of the ELVs Directive hinders this optimisation process. An overall life-cycle improvement, rather than a focus on generic targets such as weight and recycling targets, would be more suitable…"

The full study is not on ACEA’s website. Instead, readers are pointed to a summary paper written by car industry representatives that has been published in a scientific journal.1 This concludes that "as the environmental impacts of the end-of-life phase are rather small compared to the overall life-cycle burdens and the improvement potential is therefore very limited, there is no reasonable justification to limit lightweight opportunities and possible improvements in other life-cycle phases only for the fulfilment of any end-of-life quotas or requirements."

The paper also says that Friends of the Earth - one of the organisations included in the study’s advisory group - "agrees with the study’s findings, but stresses that further conclusions about a recycling/lightweight conflict would be over-simplistic as secondary effects would have to be taken into consideration, eg downsizing, consumer behaviour etc…"

But Roger Higman, FoE’s representative on the group, said he was not consulted about the paper’s conclusions, and argued that the car industry is capable of meeting both the recycling targets and the CO2 limits.

"There are other ways of improving fuel efficiency that don’t even involve light-weighting, such as the use of hybrid engines," he said. "Only two car companies have done this - Toyota and Honda - and neither belongs to ACEA, the European car manufacturers’ association."