The strange case of lost cars and hazardous waste

Written by: Lydia Heida | Published:

As the start of Brexit negotiations is many months away, it is high time to focus on some major recycling issues in the EU: up to 4.6 million discarded vehicles disappear every year, and it is unclear whether 13.5 million tonnes of hazardous waste has been treated properly. Lydia Heida reports

For someone who is passionate about recycling, it is at times difficult not to become impatient with the slow progress that is made in the EU. In 2000, the EU installed an excellent piece of legislation to deal with end-of-life vehicles.

Within five years, it became clear that the ELV Directive has led to the export of many discarded cars, rebranded as second-hand cars, to Russia or the Middle East. Today, this issue is still not solved. Also, assessments that date back as far as 2008 show that up to 4.6 million discarded vehicles disappear per year. They are not registered in the EU any more, but also are not legally scrapped or exported. So most likely the majority of these vehicles are illegally scrapped or stored somewhere within the EU, according to a recent study.

First, there is the problem of unfair competition from illegal recycling facilities in the EU. Second, discarded cars are considered hazardous waste for a reason. They contain spilled or burned engine oil and up to 55 million litres of hazardous non-fuel liquids is unaccounted for. Then there is the unsafe handling of the acid from lead-acid batteries to worry about, or the burning of plastics from old cars.

The EC’s Environment Directorate-General has asked the Öko-Institut to investigate where these millions of discarded vehicles end up and how to prevent cars from disappearing.

This report is expected to be published in mid-2017, almost a year from now. Then it will take a long time before any improvements on the ELV directive are adopted, and even longer before these will be turned into real-life action.

But at least progress is being made. That also goes for the treatment of waste originating from quarrying and mining industries, around 30% of the total EU waste. In 2006, legislation was adopted to deal with this type of waste.

Non-conformity cases

However, a recent assessment revealed many cases where the directive had been either incorrectly or only partially transposed. The EC has opened 22 formal inquiries. There are currently four legal proceedings open relating to non-conformity, against Bulgaria, Denmark, France and the UK.

Only a fraction of the extractive waste generated in the EU poses a risk to the environment or to human health. But this still amounted to around 13.5 million tonnes in 2012 (no recent data is obtainable). Almost all of this waste is generated in Bulgaria, 13.3 million tonnes.

Now, this country has only two facilities that can deal with hazardous extractive waste.

Italy claims to have 126 facilities in use, but generates a mere 1,990 tonnes of this type of waste. Unfortunately, many investigations have pointed out that criminal organisations in Italy are heavily involved in the waste industry, and there are especially problems with the treatment of hazardous waste.

However, the EC’s assessment suggests that ‘member states need to finish identifying facilities that deal with hazardous extractive waste’ in order to prevent ‘the discrepancies between the number of facilities reported and the volumes of extractive hazardous waste generated’.

In April, the REACH Committee approved a controversial proposal by the EC to grant three companies authorisation to use recycled PVC containing DEHP.

But ClientEarth, a non-profit environmental law organisation, is calling on the Commission to review this decision before November. Otherwise, this case will be taken to the European Court of Justice.

ClientEarth’s chemicals lawyer Alice Bernard said: “The application to use this chemical was deeply flawed, but the Commission approved it anyway. This sets a terrible precedent and makes the authorisation process – our first line of defence against toxics – meaningless.”

France appears to be making some headway. It is the first EU country that aims to ban all plastic cups, plates and utensils by 2020, which will give companies time to adjust. Replacements will need to be made from biologically sourced materials that can be composted.

This new law is part of the country’s Energy Transition for Green Growth Act that aims to make France a global leader in sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, Pack2Go Europe, an organisation that represents European packaging manufacturers, claims that this ban violates European law, and is urging the EC to take legal action against France.

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