What happens to your scrapped car?
Times are tough for the industry that recycles the UK’s scrapped cars and car makers could do more to help
If you lose a coin inside your car, recycling company EMR will find it.
However, be prepared to have the vehicle scrapped, stripped of its saleable parts and what’s left crushed into a cube – called a bale – before being shredded into pieces no larger than a tennis ball. Then watch as these balls are broken into still smaller bits and passed along a conveyor under a vacuum to have any lightweight materials sucked away, before magnets draw out heavier steels and ferrous materials. Finally, gaze in astonishment as what’s left is passed through a so-called ‘heavy media separator’ containing a fluid where non-ferrous metals (for example copper, aluminium and brass) can be separated out by flotation.
Et voilà: glinting dimly among the resulting pile of non-ferrous metals will be your two-pence piece.
EMR, a multinational recycling company, is one of the unsung heroes of the automotive world. Although most people are familiar with the 2200 licensed authorised treatment facilities (ATFs) – vehicle scrapyards and breakers to you and me – on the fringes of our towns and cities, the likes of EMR are a relative mystery.
Which is amazing, since each year EMR alone recycles more than four million tonnes of waste, much of it old cars. Ferrous and non-ferrous metals are resmelted, window glass ends up as aggregate for the construction industry, and foams and certain plastics undergo a process called gasification to generate electricity.
Earlier this year the motor industry’s mouthpiece, the SMMT, published its annual UK Automotive Sustainability Report. It trumpeted how the industry has met its 2015 target for 95% of a vehicle (by weight) to be recycled. It also reported on the growth in remanufacturing – worth £2.4 billion annually – citing the example of Ford’s engine and GKN’s driveshaft recycling schemes. It applauded what it called the industry’s continued co-operation with regulators and the recycling industry.
However, Graeme Carus, business development director at EMR, says the recycling industry has achieved much of the impressive recycling rates the SMMT boasts of, and not the motor industry.
“We’re doing the heavy lifting, not the car makers,” he says. “We get very little support. We even have to buy the scrap cars.” Carus says that although around 75% of a car is metal and relatively easy to recycle, what remains – plastics, composites, carbonfibre and glassfibre – has required a huge investment from the recycling industry to process. This remaining percentage of a scrapped car is, he says, how the car industry can claim to have hit its 95% target.
As an example of the investment EMR has had to make, he points to a process the company has developed whereby the unique properties of different types of recovered plastic can now be retained for reuse. “We’ve invested millions of pounds in technology and processes to enable us to preserve the unique properties of the plastics we extract, but the car industry is hesitant to use such materials,” he says. “The problem is not helped by the low price of oil, which makes producing and using new plastics more attractive to them.”
The problem of recycling plastics is felt at the more traditional ATF level, too. “The only used plastic parts we can sell are bumpers, most of which we send abroad,” says Chris Morgan, director of ASM Auto Recycling, an ATF based in Aylesbury. He also sells engines to foreign buyers, and wiring looms are sent for stripping to China. “The investment required for this business is vast, while the margins are very small,” says Morgan.
Chas Ambrose, secretary of the Motor Vehicle Dismantlers’ Association, says many ATFs earn the bulk of their income from selling car parts but claims car makers are too keen to sell their own, new parts in competition with them. Low commodity prices are driving down the cost of recycled materials. He also claims there are at least 1500 illegal dismantlers and breakers who, because they don’t conform to strict operating standards, can operate on far lower margins.
The SMMT’s report acknowledges that the motor and recycling industries face serious challenges from illegal operators, volatile commodity prices and the processing challenges presented by new materials. Even so, Carus suggests two ways the SMMT and car makers could help recyclers straight away: “They should actively engage with last owners to encourage them to scrap their cars responsibly, and they should be more open to using recovered materials, such as plastics.”
He has some advice for law enforcers, too: “There must be more effective enforcement, with illegal dismantlers identified and closed.”
Fail to do that and your lost coin may be gone for good.