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Publications archive - Waste and recycling


Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Environmental Impact of End-of-Life Vehicles: An Information Paper

Environment Australia
ISBN 0642547513

Executive Summary

The purpose of this paper is to make information available to help generate discussion about the nature and extent of any environmental impacts resulting from end of life vehicles (ELVs).

Based on Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimates, over 500,000 of the 12.5 million vehicles on Australian roads reach the end of their life each year. The number of these "ELVs" is increasing each year.

ELVs are already one of the most highly recycled consumer products. Components having an economic value are removed by auto dismantlers for refurbishing and reuse although, this may be a declining industry due to the continuing trend towards newer, more reliable vehicles with long warranty periods. The balance of the ELV is "shredded" by metal recyclers. The metal fraction, accounting for approximately 70% of materials by weight, is recycled. The remainder of the ELV, primarily plastics, seat foam, glass and rubber, is sent to landfill as waste and is known as shredder "flock" (or "fluff" or "residue").

It is important to ensure that any measures to further improve ELV environmental outcomes do not adversely impact on the market dynamics responsible for current recycling levels. In particular, it may be inequitable and counterproductive for responsibility to be attributed solely or largely to last receiver of the ELV (usually metal recyclers).

Present recycling levels produce positive environmental outcomes, which partly offset the substantial impacts that occur in the "production" and "in-service" life cycle phases of vehicles. The environmental impacts of ELVs must not be considered in isolation from total life cycle impacts. For instance, the increased use of plastics in cars may produce detrimental end of life consequences (increased waste), but probably produces net environmental gains given reductions in energy use and emissions during the vehicles operational life.

Nevertheless, there are several environmental issues associated with ELVs that have been the focus of much attention internationally. Most significant are the comprehensive new ELV management requirements recently agreed by the European Parliament. Shredder flock is classified as "hazardous" waste in some international jurisdictions. However, there is a paucity of empirical evidence in Australia about the composition of shredder flock and its environmental impact. More independent analysis is needed in this area.

Potential ELV environmental impacts fall into two main categories - pollution and resource loss.

The possible sources of environmental impacts within these categories are: (1) landfilling waste or "flock" from metal shredders; (2) poor environmental practices at some auto dismantlers and other ELV treatment facilities; and (3) vehicles abandoned in the environment. Materials with potential negative environmental consequences in ELVs include: oil, coolant, fuel, brake and other fluids; air-conditioning gases; and heavy metals including lead, hexavalent chromium, cadmium and mercury. Existing regulatory requirements in relation to some of these materials in some jurisdictions may already be reducing the level of environmental exposure.

The second category of potential environmental impacts relates to waste and resource loss, through not maximising ELV reuse and material recycling. The non-metal portion of ELVs accounts for approximately 30% by weight and is generally not recycled. Based on ABS estimates of the number of de-registered vehicles annually, and the non-metal proportion of vehicles, an approximate calculation suggests that some 195,000 tonnes of waste from ELVs may be being produced each year. However, one metal recycler estimated that an industry maximum figure of 70,000 tonnes was more realistic.

The Table at (i) below summarises the ELV impacts. Table (ii) summarises the main findings.

Setting the scene for this study, as with similar policy investigations by governments around the world, is the European Parliament directive on end of life vehicles. The directive is perhaps the most significant example of "extended producer responsibility" models to be enacted anywhere, and had its genesis in landfill shortages and other environmental concerns, which have been mounting in Europe over the last 10 years. Essentially, vehicle manufacturers are responsible for ensuring recycling targets (95% by weight by 2015) are met for ELVs which they originally manufactured. Formal ELV deregistration requirements, requiring a "certificate of disposal" from a certified treatment facility, are amongst associated measures.

A key prerequisite for improving environmental outcomes is better management of the process by which ELVs enter the waste stream. Accordingly, aspects of the European style ELV deregistration requirements are discussed in this paper, including the setting of environmental standards for recycling facilities. This could allow environmentally sound management of ELV disposal (including de-pollution) and set minimum standards for ELV dismantling/recycling firms. Added benefits might include reductions in the number of abandoned vehicles, and in criminality associated with "re-birthing" of vehicles. Discussions with industry associations and state and territory governments suggest there are widespread concerns in these areas.

There appears substantial opposition from the manufacturers and the Federal Chamber of Automobile Industries (FCAI) to any moves to mandate recycling levels through a European style "extended producer responsibility" (EPR) approach. While an EPR approach may produce the greatest environmental outcomes, it could have a significant detrimental impact on the viability of the local car industry. Other relevant considerations include the low investment/low volume nature of the local industry, landfill pressures/costs are currently relatively low, infrastructure and markets for recycled ELV materials are limited, and the cost of many of the recycling technologies mean they are not currently viable given the local market size.

It should also be noted that EPR for ELVs has not been adopted outside of Europe, and its effectiveness in Europe has yet to be tested. It remains to be seen whether the approach will be sufficient to overcome the current failure of markets to produce higher levels of recycling.

While the European experience should continue to be monitored, co-operative approaches with industry may be a better starting point for discussion of the issues in Australia.

Initial discussions suggest there may be merit in co-operative approaches aimed at: phasing out the use of certain materials with potentially negative environmental impacts; setting targets for vehicle "recyclability"; instituting certain "design for disassembly" and "design for recycling" measures; and establishing a forum for the manufacturing and recycling industries to work towards higher levels of ELV recycling. Most manufacturers are already instituting improvements in these areas in response to head office directives and developments in the global market. There may be scope for further consideration by stakeholders of what agreements in these areas could be reached, recognising existing industry planning and timing, the realities of lead times in vehicle design, and the need for broader industry sustainability objectives to also be met. There might also be resultant industry benefits by projecting the Australian industry as meeting or exceeding international standards.

Supply side measures, such as improvements in vehicle design and better waste stream management, are likely to improve the commercial viability of ELV recycling over time. However, further investigation and discussion amongst stakeholders may be desirable to better understand the technical and economic impediments to the development of markets for non-metal ELV materials - particularly plastics, foam, glass and rubber. All sources of those waste materials could be considered, rather than examining ELVs in isolation (ELVs account for only about 7% of waste plastics, for instance). Until the nature of these markets is better understood, it would be premature to consider any form of direct financial intervention to compensate for the limited commercial viability of non-metal, ELV materials recycling.

The intention of the paper is to inform discussion on possible policy responses to the environmental impacts from ELVs, which should be pragmatic and achievable.

(i) Summary Table - ELV impacts

Key Issue Releases to
Dumped vehicles Releases of fluids etc, disturbed water flows, pollution, vermin habitat etc ELVs not entering the recycling stream
Poor practices at ELV recyclers Releases to ground, air and water of ELV fluids, air-conditioning gasses etc ELV fluids etc not recycled
Landfill contamination - fluids etc Leaching of potentially polluting fluids etc in shredder flock at landfill sites ELV fluids etc not recycled
Landfill contamination - heavy metals etc Potential leaching of heavy metals, PCBs, PVC etc which may be contained in landfilled shredder flock A small proportion of metals are not recycled through the shredders
Recycling of components   Limited reuse of ELV components
Waste volume and lack of material recycling Release of potentially polluting substances

Use of land for waste disposal

Waste volumes generated by shredder flock

Limited recycling of non-metal portion of ELV materials

(ii) Summary of Key Findings