The last thing automakers want in this already heavily regulated industry is more regulation, especially in the form of legislation. In Europe, population density pressures and the higher cost of landfill have resulted in draft legislation at several levels of government that have stimulated potentially far-reaching changes in the way cars are designed and what happens to them at the end of their useful life. For these reasons, watching the dynamics of the recycling scene in Europe provides a view of things that could influence recycling, parts design and materials selection in North American-built cars.

Automotive recycling and the green car have been the subject of much press coverage, engineering effort, study and process development since the announcement by German auto manufacturers that they would take back certain Model Year '93 vehicles at the end of their life for dismantling and recycling. In parallel with this radical move, the German Ministry of the Environment promulgated several draft ordinances starting in 1992 that proposed to regulate vehicle disposal and the obligations of OEMs with respect to end of life vehicles (ELVs). These included acceptance of ELVs by the OEMs, the obligation to establish a recycling infrastructure, to introduce recycling-oriented designs for new vehicles and to establish target recycle rates for plastics.

Most auto OEMs have either withdrawn or scaled back their programs, butVolkswagen is still actively engaged in a program being carried out jointly with German recycler Preussag.

In December Fiat unveiled a project to recycle 100,000 of the 1.5 million ELVs Italians scrap every year. This would make it the largest program of its kind in Europe. Starting this year, ELVs of any make can be left at a Fiat dealer without charge or obligation to buy a Fiat.

The German legislative direction has softened somewhat in the last few months, but the baton has been picked up by the European Commission, which may soon publish a draft directive laying out fundamental issues of timing, who pays for the take-back scheme and the percent that must be recycled.

In Europe, landfill management is an even more pressing issue than in North America. In Germany landfill costs range from $175/ton to $715/ton ($160/t to $650/t) compared with costs well below $55/ton ($50/t) in the U.S. The tie between landfill and auto disposal is the auto shredder residue (ASR), the materials left over after 75% of the vehicle is recycled as a valuable component of the metals stream.

European automakers, in an effort to demonstrate their environmental responsibility and perhaps to pre-empt legislative mandates, are developing recycling technologies in organizations similar to the Vehicle Recycling Partnership operated by the Big Three domestic manufacturers in the U.S. (see WAW -- Feb. 1995, p.19). They also are setting voluntary targets for how much of the ASR will reach the landfill from ELVs. The French automakers' proposal (known as CADRE) and the U.K. agreement (known as ACORD), for example, target a 40% reduction of ASR by 2002 and 80% reduction by 2015.

To achieve these ambitious voluntary targets will require development of recycling technology for plastics, glass and rubber -- major constituents of the ASR. It also will require development of satisfactory methods of handling fluids, cost-effective dismantling and methods to separate the 15 plastics and 10 rubber families on the car.

Because automotive manufacturing is one of the most global industries, changes in the European auto industry are affecting materials selection on a global basis. Ford, for example, is seeking 25% post-consumer recyclate content in 20% of new components in 1997.

Auto companies will want to pass on the recycling pressure -- whether mandated or voluntary -- to their plastics and rubber suppliers. Those rubber producers that attempt to close the loop between beginning and end of life of the products they supply will have an edge over their less-committed competitors.

The final and most difficult problem to resolve is not technology but the economics of recycling. Properly dismantling a vehicle is expensive, and it is difficult to separate into pure streams. One partial solution is to accept multi-material streams and rely on newer identification and (still expensive) separation technologies. Several companies are taking this approach. Another approach is to avoid the expensive compounding step and to injection-mold parts directly from granulated recycled plastics.