Recycling 101: The U.S. Crushes Cars, While Europe Dismantles Them

Last Updated Apr 15, 2010 11:37 AM EDT

If you want to know how cars of the future will be recycled, take a look at what's happening with printer cartridges. Lavergne Group, in the industrial outskirts of Montreal, is where depleted Hewlett-Packard cartridges go to be reborn. Instead of simply being crushed -- the default method for many recycled products -- the cartridges are dismantled by an ingenious robotic machine in a pilot "closed loop" program. According to HP's Dean Miller, this allows HP to capture as much as 50 percent more plastic over the messy shredding process.

When shredded, HP cartridge plastic is mixed in with the metal and paper that go into creating these complex little capsules. It's a useful waste stream, but a contaminated one.

The same basic issue has plagued auto recycling. Although the car is among the most recycled products (around 70 to 80 percent by weight is recovered), the final frontier has been recovering what is known as "fluff" -- plastic, foam and other non-metallic material.

Argonne National Labs in Chicago has been working on recovering more fluff, including hard-to-recycle foam. And the process is well on its way at Lavergne Group. According to President Jean-Luc Lavergne, pelletized PET plastic recovered from soda and water bottles (only about 20 percent of which are recycled in the U.S.) goes to Michigan, where it is made into front end parts for new Ford Econoline vans.

Lavergne would like to dismantle cars at his facility the same way he dismantles the HP cartridges. Indeed, he recently completed a trial program in which he took apart 50 cars and recovered their plastic parts.

Lavergne said he is talking to both Mercedes and Opel about setting up auto dismantling operations in Germany, where recycling laws are getting more stringent. Europe, where as many as nine million cars reach their "end of life" annually, is well ahead of the U.S. in mandating the fullest possible auto recovery and making owners and manufacturers responsible for that process.

Cars are part of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) movement in Europe. This started with adoption in 1991 of Germany's Green Dot law, which mandated that manufacturers take responsibility for recycling packaging.

The European Commission proposed a law covering vehicle dismantling and recycling in 1997, and it was mandated for 2002. The provisions are far-reaching, requiring carmakers to reduce the use of hazardous substances and increase the use of recycled materials. By 2015, only about five percent of the car can be landfilled. The law also requires collection of end-of-life vehicles (ELV) and sets deadlines for materials recovery. The last owner of ELVs are required to dispose of them properly through a take-back system paid for by carmakers.

The law made manufacturers responsible for end-of-life recycling for packaging, and led to a sharp reduction in packaging. Green Dot was mandated by the European Union in 2002, and has since spread to more than 20 European countries (and Japan and South Korea as well).

  • In Sweden, a car scrappage law was ahead of the EU law, going into effect in 1975. It was revised in 1997, and requires manufacturers to accept ELVs free of charge.
  • In the Netherlands, the auto companies have entered into contracts with dismantlers that recycled 90 percent of the 234,000 Dutch ELVs in 2006.
  • In Great Britain, carmakers and dismantlers entered into the so-called CARE collaboration to research and test best practices for maximizing the recycled amount of cars and trucks.
The first EPR law in a U.S. state, Maine, was enacted earlier this month. Comprehensive laws are pending in six state legislatures. EPR is also well advanced in Canada. According to Frances Edmonds, director of environmental programs for HP Canada, both Ontario and Quebec have packaging laws, and five of 10 provinces have programs that make manufacturers take back such electronic components, including PCs, notebooks, monitors, printers and TVs.

Lavergne, whose business is growing rapidly, says he can dismantle cars profitably even without the laws that would be required in Canada. "I can do it today, on my own, and be successful," he said.

Photo: Flickr/George Laoutaris