Let metal recycling do its bit to meet recycling targets

Written by: RWW | Published:

Ian Hetherington, director general, British Metals Recycling Association, provides an update on the metal recycling industry, considers a possible European end-of-life standard and queries the wisdom of 'light weighting vehicles, i.e. replacing metal with carbon fibre in cars.

In my article about the metal recycling industry in May, I focused on the challenge of reusing, recycling or recovering energy from 95% of the weight of ELVs from 2015 under the EU’s ELV Directive. 

The following month, I chaired a session at the Complete Auto Recycling and Secondary Materials (CARS) show on the same subject. Therefore, it was very encouraging to hear from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) that an 88% reuse, recycling and recovery rate was achieved in 2012.

The UK car manufacturing, vehicle dismantling and metal recycling industries should be congratulated for not only reaching but exceeding the statutory target of 85%. 

This has been achieved without an overly complicated and expensive producer responsibility scheme or substantial support from producers; ELV recyclers have simply got on with dealing with an extremely complex waste stream.

Car manufacturers have a legal obligation to offer consumers a free take-back service through a network of licensed scrap yards. 

Parts are salvaged for reuse if possible and then metals, plastics, rubber and glass are separated and recycled. The industry is already focused on reaching the higher target of 95% from the start of 2015.

Energy recovery

The additional 10% can be reached through the combustion of unrecyclable residue from shredding ELVs to generate energy. However, levels of energy recovery from this material known as automotive shredder residue (ASR) are currently low in the UK. Following 2012’s confirmation from Defra and the EA, ASR can now be used in dedicated thermal processes designed specifically to generate energy or used in small quantities as a replacement fuel in cement kilns. 

Previously, there were no financial drivers to encourage investment in the necessary infrastructure to recover energy from ASR when it did not contribute to ELV targets. Therefore, around 600,000 tonnes of ASR was being landfilled each year because PVC plastics present in ASR give it a high chlorine content which corrodes the boiler, gas ducts, superheaters and tubes of existing energy from waste facilities. 

The announcement in 2012 provided the necessary regulatory framework for the metals recycling industry to finance dedicated facilities to generate energy from ASR. 

For example, Axion Polymers has invested in a multi-million pound processing plant for shredder waste which is already capable of delivering the 95% recycling and recovery target for ELVs. However, this is not the case across the country and there is still a lot of work to be done to meet the higher target and recover energy from 10% of ELVs. 

Reaching higher targets

The industry could sit back and let the UK government take responsibility for reaching the higher target by putting draconian measures in place. 

However, that would be counterproductive as everyone from vehicle manufacturers to metal and plastic recyclers must play a part. 

A number of constructive points were made at the CARS session on meeting the 2015 ELV targets earlier this year by Paul Hallett, from the environmental regulation team at BIS, and Keith Freeguard, director at Axion Polymers. The average lifetime of a car is 13 years and unfortunately most vehicle manufacturers are not thinking about how it will be processed as an ELV and if it will easily reach the higher reuse, recycling and energy recovery target.

Reducing CO2 emissions by light weighting vehicles may sound like a good idea, but replacing metal with carbon fibre or composites will dramatically affect how much the vehicle can be reused, recycled or recovered at the end of its life. This is because these materials are not easily recyclable. 

Lighter vehicles will save energy and carbon emissions over their lifetimes, but these positive environmental impacts may be negated when they are processed as ELVs.

Also, the current system of producer responsibility has not driven an increase in vehicle manufacturers using recycled materials. This could be achieved by implementing a system to incentivise the use of recycled materials or setting targets. There would be other benefits too - recycled plastics are protected from the volatility of the oil market so have stable prices, for example.

An ELV standard?

The possible development of European standards for the treatment of ELVs is also on the horizon as Europe 2020 includes a standardisation strategy to help bring about a resource efficient continent. 

At the moment, there is no official position on an ELV treatment standard but the BMRA will liaise with vehicle manufacturers to explore whether there would be a mutual interest in developing an industry standard or, at the very least, a common position ahead of any such proposals. 

Our objective is to ensure that any future standard is appropriate and does not pose unnecessary administrative or economic burdens on the treatment community but is risk-based and fit-for-purpose.

Wider lessons

The most important lesson that the government can learn from the ELV processing sector ahead of the revised EU Waste Framework Directive is that positive value should not be regulated out of any waste stream unnecessarily. In addition, the entire life cycle of materials should be considered when developing policies in this area. 

The waste management and recycling industry as a whole should be supported with consistent arrangements from the government so it can invest in infrastructure without the need for public guarantees or subsidies. 

Landfill tax should continue to be the main driver to increase recycling rates and encourage market instead of landfill bans for certain materials. Landfill restrictions could lead to an increase in waste crime such as fly-tipping and illegal sites which would damage the legitimate industry. 

Incentives should also be introduced such as VAT relief to encourage companies to use recovered and recycled materials.

It is vital that the government allows the UK’s metal recycling sector to continue to lead the wider recycling industry in developing innovative materials recycling and recovery processes. This will create more jobs and drive economic growth for all involved.


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