Recycle your car, don't scrap it

Two million cars are disposed of every year in the UK, only half of them through the proper channels. Recycle materials and cut down on pollution by sending your old banger to an authorised treatment facility

You’ve finally traded up to a hybrid – or even better, bought a pushbike – and don’t expect to be shelling out on a new car for at least a decade. The question now is what to do with your old one?

With two million cars reaching the end of their working lives in the UK every year, disposing of the tonnes of associated metal, rubber and waste fluids is a huge environmental issue – and big business. When prices for scrap metal hit £200 per tonne in 2008 it led to a rise in thefts of even the most clapped-out cars by criminal gangs. Prices are currently approximately £150 per tonne.

And yet only half of all decommissioned vehicles are treated at the authorised treatment facilities (ATFs) equipped to deal with them, recycling what can be recovered and disposing safely of the many pollutants associated with motor vehicles.

That means a million cars are ending up cannibalised in driveways or illegal scrap yards, leaching heavy metals and toxins into the ground or rusting by the side of the road – some estimates put the number of cars abandoned in Britain every year at 350,000. Thousands of tonnes of oil and brake fluid are poured down drains, while no rural idyll seems complete these days without a stack of dumped tyres nearby.

Tom Chance, founder of Giveacar, a not-for-profit that recycles cars for scrap and donates profits to charity, says illegal scrapping is a real problem. ‘Unauthorised facilities can do as they please with vehicles. Cars are often cherry-picked for valuable parts before being abandoned and left to rot. Others are crushed without being sufficiently depolluted, so hazardous fluids drain into the surface of the earth, causing considerable environmental damage. Some cars meant for the scrap yard are put back onto the road in a dangerous condition. The woeful audit trail has led to a situation where millions of tyres have been dumped in the countryside and thousands of tonnes of hazardous fluids dispersed into the ground.’

Chance says that while ATFs do good work ensuring that cars are depolluted and recycled effectively, ‘the government does not do enough to discourage the type of scrap merchant that advertises on lampposts’.

Ostensibly addressing the issue of old cars and the environment, what the previous government did do was introduce the Car Scrappage Scheme. Until the beginning of 2010, motorists were paid £2,000 for scrapping old cars and buying new, more environmentally friendly ones. Aimed more at kick-starting an economy teetering on the brink of recession rather than addressing substantively any environmental issues, critics such as George Monbiot were scathing of what he called a ‘scam’ to prop up the ailing car industry.

The scrapping process

Scrap cars have been identified as a priority waste stream by the European Union, and are covered by the End-of-Life Vehicles Directive. Implemented in 2005, the directive set targets for 85 per cent of scrap vehicles to be recovered and recycled, rising to 95 per cent by 2015.

First the car is transported to a covered depollution building. The battery is removed for recycling and the airbags deployed. The tyres are removed and sent for retreading, recovery or fuel replacement – tyres are a toxic mix of rubber hydrocarbon, carbon black, oil, sulphur, zinc oxide and other chemicals, including inorganic fillers and organic vulcanisation activators and accelerators.

Hazardous materials – such as mercury switches – are removed and the air conditioning fluid is removed. The vehicle is then connected to a depollution rig to have its fluids pumped out into sealed tanks: petrol, diesel, waste oil, coolant, screen fluid and brake fluid. These are then sent for specialist recycling or disposal. Specified parts can now be removed from the vehicle, including catalytic converters or oil filters, glass, bumpers and other large plastic items – the dismantled parts are sent for specialist recycling or disposal. The metal shell of the car is sent to a shredder for further processing.

Any motorist who takes their vehicle to be scrapped legally will be given a Certificate of Destruction, proving that the car has been destroyed. The ATF will also inform the DVLA that you are no longer responsible for the vehicle.

If you don’t receive one or your car is not being scrapped then you must complete section three – notification of sale or transfer – of your vehicle registration certificate (V5C) and send it to the DVLA, which will return a letter confirming you no longer have responsibility for the car.

Scrapping the car yourself means continuing to tax it or making a Statutory Off Road Notification (SORN). You will need to let the DVLA have one of these every year until you no longer have the car or it is taken to an ATF.

A few suggestions on how to go about it…

First check the company you are asking to scrap your car is registered with the Environment Agency or Scottish Environment Protection Agency and carries an EA Waster Management and Waste Carriers Licence. This will guarantee that they use authorised treatment facilities.

Breaking cars down properly in order to harvest materials and collect waste safely is a long, expensive process, requiring specific equipment and infrastructure. This makes it unlikely, having paid £50 for your knackered motor, that John down the pub will be going through the proper recycling channels.

Doing so will also ensure that all the proper documentation is filled in. The last thing you want is still to be getting parking tickets for the rust bucket you thought long gone – let alone to see it ‘reconditioned’ and back on the road, being driven around by someone who bought it from the unscrupulous scrap merchant you sold it to.

...and a few scrappage companies to try

Nationwide not-for-profit social enterprise that collects donated vehicles, sells them at auction or recycles them, and donates the value in scrap metal to the charity of the donor’s choice. Has raised £150,000 for good causes since launching in January 2009.
Collects cars for free in and around London, Kent, Essex, Surrey, Hertfordshire and Sussex. EA registered. Does not stock or sell spare parts or salvage vehicles – all cars are recycled.
Free collection nationwide, EA registered. The company notes: ‘We do not buy vehicles and advise you to be very suspicious of any companies or individuals who make promises to pay cash for your vehicle. If your vehicle is sold for a cash price then technically you do not have any say in its destiny.’

Eifion Rees is the Ecologist's acting Green Living editor


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