IMPORTANT LEGAL NOTICE - The information on this site is subject to a disclaimer and a copyright notice
Banner Research
  European Commission   > Research > Growth
Homepage Competitive and Sustainable Growth - Making the European Research Area a Reality
Graphic element
Graphic element
Graphic element
Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Products & processes projects> Recycling end of life vehicles
Graphic element Recycling end of life vehicles

The number of used cars, so-called End of Life Vehicles (ELVs), in Western Europe is expected to soar from around seven million per year at present to around 10 million by 2015. While most of the raw materials, ranging from metals and glass to plastics, can be recycled, reused or recovered, a large proportion, including around two million tonnes of residue from car shredders, still finds its way as waste into landfill sites. This makes the car industry one of the biggest users of landfill.

This solution is neither desirable or sustainable. EU legislation is both seeking to reduce drastically the amount of overall waste that is dumped in landfill sites and step up the proportion of cars that are recycled, reused or recovered. The Directive on End of Life Vehicles, of which the final form was agreed by EU ministers and the European Parliament in May 2000, is the main catalyst for Europe's car makers to improve their performance. It places the responsibility on manufacturers to take back and scrap cars in the future with the obligation starting for all new cars put on the market after 1 July 2002, and for existing cars from January 2007.

The Directive also calls for the proportion, by weight, of a car which is recycled and reused to reach 85% by 2005 and the proportion which is reused or recovered to reach a minimum of 95% by the same deadline.

Other environmental legislation, such as the Directive on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC), which forces industrial plants and processing companies to clean up their overall pollution performance, has focused some research on improving the environmental performance of scrap smelting.

ELVs and the European economy

Although the scrap industry has a less than glamorous moth-eaten image, associated in some countries with door-to-door callers and horse carts, it is in fact a sizable sector with an estimated 20,000 companies Europe-wide involved in collecting, dismantling, and shredding waste. While many of these are small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), the more capital intensive shredding business is a haven for a few hundred bigger players.

Many of the continent's biggest companies are involved in the drive to reduce waste. Apart from car manufacturers faced with the deadline of an EU directive, many of their suppliers, including major European plastics and chemicals companies, are taking part in research on how to increase recycling and reuse.

Europe's research efforts in this field have possibly given it a lead over the USA and Japan. "There is probably an advance over the USA with the possibility of technology transfer taking place in the future," says Pierre Picot of Lyon-based Ixas Conseil, which co-ordinates a thematic network on the eco-efficient treatment of plastics in end of life vehicles. Mr Picot highlighted in particular Europe's lead in the treatment and recovery of valuable raw materials from shredded waste.

Plastics reuse and recycling

The plastics industry claims to be the second biggest business sector in the EU, with an annual turnover of 135 billion a year. Use by the car industry has steadily increased over the last decade, partly because plastics offer a lighter, and often cheaper, alternative to metals with this translating into better fuel economy. Easily moulded plastics are often better suited to demands for greater comfort and design. This explains in part the rise in average plastic content of cars by 30 kg to 100 kg per vehicle between 1977 and 1997. Although the plastics industry points to rising levels of plastics reuse and recovery, plastics waste still accounts for a high proportion of overall auto waste. The EU has therefore given high priority to research projects which can tackle the problem.
While much research has been taking place at individual company level, this has often been uncoordinated, both within sectors and between different industries. The thematic network brings together:

  • car producers
  • plastic resin producers
  • dismantlers
  • shredders
  • recyclers
  • plastic parts moulders and
  • research institutes

to fill this gap with the help of EU funding. Three working groups were created under the network umbrella, These cover:

  • dismantling
  • material recycling and
  • shredder residue treatment and use.

Many companies were represented in more than one group.
Although the final results and analysis of the working groups will not be formulated until Autumn 2000, some points where industry performance can be improved and future EU research funding profitably directed are already apparent.

Shredder residue a key area

The treatment of shredder residue, where many different technologies already exist, has been picked out as a key area for further research. An example is the identification and separation of different types of plastics by bombarding them with infrared radiation or their sorting by flotation techniques. The different densities of materials causes them to separate during this process.

One of the biggest challenges here is to take existing technologies which have been tried and tested in the laboratory and apply them to a practical, often very demanding and dirty, working environment.

The need for recognised standards for the recovered materials so that they can be confidently used again by industry is another basic but fundamental prerequisite for meeting recycling targets. The network will make clear proposals for follow-up research and development projects.

Companies and institutions involved in EU research projects aimed at cutting waste and boosting recycling are brought together under Trawmar (Targeted Research Action on Waste Minimisation and Recycling). The four-year project aims at promoting the exchange of findings and experiences in different sectors, identifying new markets for waste materials and encouraging EU technology exports to other markets, such as the United States and Far East.

Recycling car fuel tanks

Fuel tanks, made out of high density polyethylene, are now a feature on more than 60% of new European cars and represent one of the biggest plastic components. RECAFUTA, an EU-funded research project headed by Belgian chemical company Solvay, has successfully found ways of removing tanks and treating them so that the raw material can be used again to produce new tanks. The project is due to finish in 2000.

One of the biggest challenges for recycling has been to find ways of removing fuel residues and other coatings that accumulate on the fuel tank during its lifetime and would otherwise taint the raw material. A prototype for the removal of external coatings has been developed and works very well under test conditions. Elimination of residual fuels by solvent extraction has also been developed.

Work on the physical side of recycling has also advanced a long way. A basic industrial line capable of processing one tonne of plastic an hour is currently under development and car manufacturers have come up with special tools that can help with the quick removal of tanks at the start of the process. It has also been found that a proportion of up to 40% recycled high density polyethylene (HDPE) can be used in making new fuel tanks with no problems in the final quality or performance.

A comparison of the advantages of recycling with other options such as burning plastic and recovering the energy, or simple landfill, should be completed within a few months.

Recycling polyamides

Heat resistant polyamide plastics, such as Nylon, used in the demanding environment found under the car bonnet account for between 15 and 20% of the plastics used in cars. However, because of tough quality standards, re-use and recycling of polyamides has been very limited. Under the EU's CRAFT programme, a project involving Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology and five companies investigated the extent to which this high grade plastic can be reused.

Research under the COMPARE project has found that special under-the-bonnet plastic used for fan blades, engine guards, and hub caps can be removed. Once treated with oxidants and impact modifiers, around 40% can be reused with the original raw material to produce new components. In this proportion the reused plastic should still meet the stringent quality demands of manufacturers.

Industrial tests and economic evaluations of polyamide reuse and recycling will continue over a nine month period to ascertain how broadly the techniques pioneered by COMPARE can be taken up by the car industry.

 Sorting plastics for recycling

Two industrial techniques already exist for sorting plastics for recycling. Unfortunately, both have flaws. Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) can sort plastics at high speed with 100% accuracy for some of the most common types of plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). However, it is unable to identify other types of plastics with the same degree of accuracy. An alternative technology using infrared beams can distinguish between all plastics, but the process speed is painfully slow. Both processes are also relatively expensive, with one LIBS unit costing around 40,000.

The SURE-PLAST research project funded under the Brite-Euram programme aims to take the existing technology and to combine and adapt it so that a fast, hybrid version can be found for separating plastics at high speed. The research results will have a clear pay off for many industries where such technology is sorely needed to differentiate between plastics found in shredders.
Prototypes of new units will put through laboratory trials and industrial field trials during the second half of 2000. The project is due to end in 2001.

Metals recycling

Due to their high costs and relatively easy sorting processes, metals from ELVs have already achieved a very high level of recycling. However, improvements in the recycling ratio should be possible as a result of EU research.

The CEMIR (Cost-effective electric motors with improved recyclability and less environmental impact) project, funded under the Brite-Euram programme, set out to solve a basic but nevertheless fundamental problem affecting steel and copper recycling from electric motors in cars. Previous designs for the armatures of electric motors meant that they deformed and buckled when crushed during the scrapping process but did not break, trapping the copper wire inside. CEMIR developed a new production method using iron powder, resulting in lighter but just as powerful armatures which broke when crushed, releasing the copper contents.

Recovery and removal of heavy metals

Smelting down scrap metals so that they can be used again as a raw material can create a lot of waste water tarnished by heavy metals such as copper, zinc, lead, and nickel. While some of this matter can be removed by an established method, known as the precipitation process whereby alkalis are added to a tank and the metals separate out, a high proportion of the water may still be contaminated.

In many cases companies may face high costs for further treatment of the water, or increasingly heavy eco-taxes as Europe attempts to improve water quality. A cheap but efficient follow up treatment was the subject of the EU-funded MERESAFIN (Metal Removal by Sand Filter Inoculation) project.

The project, co-ordinated by the Flemish Institute for Technical Research (VITO), Belgium, developed a more efficient and trustworthy method of waste water treatment using bacteria which absorb or help to separate out metals present. The method was already known but its efficiency dropped off fast following several treatments. To overcome this problem a special method was developed where bacteria continue to be replaced and renewed during the treatment of waste water. The final result of treatment is a fine sludge which, when dried, can be smelted down with a further recovery of economically interesting levels of metals.

The process has been tested successfully on an industrial scale by Belgium non-ferrous metals company Union Minière. Around a tenth of the waste water produced by its various smelting processes was subject to the follow-up biological treatment.

Tyres for tomorrow

Used tyres represent one of the biggest environmental problems attributable to the car industry, with most of the millions discarded every year finding their way into local dumps. One of the main obstacles is economic: although recycling tyres is technically possible, it is cheaper to start from scratch with the original raw material. One way of cutting the pollution problem is to extend the life of existing tyres by retreading. This procedure, which basically involves adding a new rubber coat to existing tyres, can be applied once to cars and several times to lorries and aircraft. However, only around 12% of European tyres are currently retreaded.

Key problems in the past associated with retreading have focused on checking the steel core of tyres for corrosion, replacing highly polluting chemical solvents used for gluing on the new rubber tread, and allowing better testing of re-tread tyres to predict their future wear. A CRAFT-funded project, Improving the Control and Performance of Retreated Tyres, has provided answers to all three challenges, and research results will make retreading cheaper and more reliable - and should translate into extra business.


ELVs and the European economy
Plastics reuse and recycling
Shredder residue a key area
Recycling car fuel tanks
Recycling polyamides
Sorting plastics for recycling
Metals recycling
Recovery and removal of heavy metals
Tyres for tomorrow

Key data

The EU sponsors extensive research in vehicles recycling, with funding provided under the Innovative products, processes & organisation key action and the New materials and production technologies generic activity.

Successful projects include:
Thematic network on eco efficient treatment of ELVs with emphasis on plastics (BRRT-CT98-5057)
TRAWMAR: Targeted research action on waste minimisation and recyling (BRRT975002)
RECAFUTA: Car plastic fuel tanks: closed loop recycling process, design and life cycle assessment (BRPR-CT98-0658)
COMPARE Development of compounding procedures for recycled polyamide for use in Automotion (BRST-CT98-5375)
SURE-PLAST: Development of multipurpose industrial units for recycling of plastic wastes by on-line pattern recognition of polymer features (BRPR 980783)
CEMIR: Implementation of a new technology for the production of cost-effective electronic-motors with improved recyclability and less environmental impact (BRPR 960249)
MARESAFIN: Removal and recovery of heavy metals from wastewater by sand filters innoculated with metal biosorbing or bioprecipitating bacteria (BRPR-CT96-0172)
Improvement in quality control and performance of retreaded tyres (BRST-CT985255)

For more information visit 'Plastics in ELV' the Web site of the European Information Network on 'Eco-efficient treatment of End of Life Vehicles with emphasis on Plastics'.

Homepage Graphic element Top of the page