Crunch time for the scrap industry

It’s crunch time for the scrap industry: the UK needs a whole new infrastructure to achieve recycling recovery rates set for 2007. Max Glaskin reports.

Steptoe and Son had it easy. The rag-and-bone men of the TV sitcom simply collected the rubbish they were given, leaving them plenty of time to bicker. But the modern recycling industry has no time to waste arguing if it’s going to comply with new laws.

It does a good job at the moment and is possibly our most effective environmental guardian, if not the most glamorous.

Two million cars are scrapped each year in the UK to supply a voracious food chain. It starts when local dismantlers depollute old wrecks and pass the stripped carcasses to a network of regional shredding plants, such as Europe’s largest which is due to open in Liverpool this month. The fluids, metals and plastics they recover are sold on so that new cars can be made from old. That gleaming Bentley Arnage you covet could well be made of steel from two old Corsas and a Fiat Panda.

Currently 72 per cent of a car, measured by weight, is either reused or recycled. By 2007, however, the EU says the recovery rate must rise to 85 per cent. That’s the crunch.

More plastic will have to be salvaged from the old wrecks because most of the metal, the majority of the weight, is already scavenged. The trouble is that nobody has yet created a market system that values the plastic greater than the cost of recovering it.

There is a belief that it can be done. A report due to be released before Easter from the motor manufacturers, dismantlers and plastics industry will claim it has been demonstrated. And Nissan is already using recycled plastic for the air filter housing in Primeras and Almeras.

But who will pay for the recycling if it’s a money-loser? To the untrained eye most scrapyards look a mess. But that’s nothing compared to the mass of legislation that is threatening to undermine the good intentions of an entire continent that doesn’t want to level its valleys with landfill.

Here’s the first barrier. The EU directive says that half of the extra target has to be recovered for mechanical recycling – turning the plastic into new components. The other half can be met by incinerating the material and converting it into heat energy. That would be a very good way to help the recycling industry in the UK meet the new target. Yet it falls at the first hurdle because there is no capacity within the incineration sector to absorb such a large volume of material. That’s why it can’t be burnt.

The second barrier comes in the form of the EU’s Waste Oil Directive 1975. Recyclers had come up with the clever idea of taking the tyres and oil from old cars, reforming and refining them into new oil and selling it as fuel to power stations, to replace the oil that would otherwise come out of the ground. It seems like an attractive way forward – but think again. The UK already burns too much old oil and fails to comply with the Waste Oil Directive of 1975. Turning tyres into fuel oil would only make matters worse. So it’s back to square one.

Barrier number three becomes visible when recyclers consider simply stripping out the plastic before the scrap car enters the shredder. It’s a nice idea until one learns that it can take up to 15 minutes for a diligent mechanic to remove and strip a plastic bumper that’s worth only a few pence. Thus it’s a business that will interest recyclers who have a large fortune and are happy to see it shrink.

It’s not all bad news, however. Barrier four is being dismantled gradually by the Environment Agency. According to legislation that came into effect last year, only Authorised Treatment Facilities (ATFs) are allowed to dispose of scrap cars. ATFs are, effectively, local scrap yards. But the authorisation process is way behind schedule. By the end of the year maybe 2,000 will have been given permits by the Agency.But that leads to barrier number five. The 2,000 ATFs will be responsible for getting the plastic off the car and selling it to recyclers. The trouble is that there is no network to exchange information between ATFs and plastic recyclers.

Scrapyards don’t know what the recyclers want and the recyclers can’t easily locate the scrap plastic it needs. This isn’t a small matter; it’s a gulf that simply must be bridged if an efficient market is going to evolve.

The DTI is due to finish consultations about this problem at the end of this month, with the outcome scheduled to be enshrined in law before the autumn. If it doesn’t resolve it, then mountains of plastic will pile up and the UK will fall foul of European law. It has to be fixed. The last thing anybody wants is a Harold Steptoe over in Brussels shouting across the Channel, ‘You dirty old man.’

Max Glaskin is a freelance technology writer.