End of the road
So your car has finally given up the ghost – it has become one of the two million vehicles reaching the end of their lives in the UK each year. So what happens now?
Recycling Lives’ recycling facility in Preston is one of many across the country that could be your car’s final destination. Far from being sent straight to the crusher, however, your prized vehicle must go through a rigorous process to recover as much value as possible.
Under the EU’s End of Life Vehicles (ELV) Directive, brought into UK law in 2007, operators taking waste vehicles must limit the environmental impact of handling, dismantling and disposing of ELVs. The regulations require all hazardous substances to be safely removed before destruction and, from 2015, 95 per cent of each car must be recycled or reused.
Once collected, your car will go through an in-depth depollution process: out comes the battery, cleaned and recharged if suitable for resale, and off come the tyres. Suspension systems, wheel balances and weights are also taken off, while oil filters are removed and crushed.
A drainage system is used to purge the car of hazardous liquids: fuel; coolants; antifreeze; brake and clutch fluids; windscreen wash and oils from the engine, gearbox and transmission are all separately stored and recycled. As one last precaution, air bags and seatbelt pretensioners are deployed to prevent any explosions, while air conditioning systems, containing harmful chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), are removed.
What happens next depends on the facility. At Recycling Lives, the wheels will be removed and resold or recycled, with the rest heading for the site’s fragmentiser. Other ELV facilities will further dismantle cars and store them for on-demand used part sales.
Alasdair Jackson, Operations Director at Recycling Lives, explains: “The fragmentiser cuts the car into small pieces and removes the steel with two massive magnets. The rest goes the other way and the downstream equipment, which is a further separation, will separate the plastics, the non-ferrous metals and the after-shredder residue.”
Though Jackson says that the regulations haven’t changed much of the depollution process, the recycling target has led to big changes: “We’ve only had the fragmentiser for the last year and a half. Before then, we were depolluting to a certain extent and then everything would go to someone else and they would deal with that and we would get our compliance to the 85 per cent [the regulations’ pre-2015 target] through car take-back. Now we’ve put it in, we deal with the after-shredder residue ourselves. We use companies that will further recycle that after-shredder residue. That enables us to try and meet the 95 per cent.”
Jackson says that around 100 cars are processed every day at the Preston facility. Across the UK, ELV recycling recovers a high quantity of a range of materials, but the issue now is getting higher-quality recyclate to close the loop.
Indeed, though use of aluminium is growing in the automotive industry, the recovery process doesn’t make the most of the highly-recyclable material, says Andy Doran, Senior Manager of Sustainability & Recycling Development at Novelis Europe. He explains that the specific manganese and silicon aluminium alloys used in automotive body panels are mixed with all the other aluminium alloys present during the fragmentation process. The recovered material is subsequently only used for low-grade applications such as engine blocks. This, says Doran, is a huge market and saves primary aluminium but leaves a lot of room for circular improvement.
Jackson admits further investment will be needed to ensure that the highest-grade material is recovered separately. As aluminium becomes more prevalent, demand for that investment could increase. This demand, says Doran, would also push manufacturers to design cars for dismantling, which the current producer responsibility system does little to encourage. Novelis is already working with Jaguar Land Rover to create a closed-loop production model using production scrap, with plans to work towards ELV recycling, but Doran says much more work is needed before circular practices reach the mass market.