End-of-Life vehicle study showing phase out of heavy metals is possible

EU end-of-life vehicle legislation needs to be tough enough to ensure that current technical innovation in the phase-out of heavy metals in vehicle production doesn't grind to a halt through too many exemptions and derogations, says a study.

The study was undertaken by a Hamburg-based consultancy, Okopol, for the European Commission. Its findings are another attempt by the EC to justify proposed standards for recovery and recycling contained in the proposed End-of-Live Vehicle Directive (see related story). The phasing out of heavy metals will reduce water and soil contamination during vehicle dismantling and recycling.

Negotiations will begin soon aimed at reaching a compromise between the position on the Directive held by MEPs (see related story) and the position held by environment ministers of EU member states.

Environmentalists have accused some MEPs of seeking to water down the Directive on behalf of European car manufacturers (see related story). An EC official speaking to edie agreed that car manufacturers’ interests have influenced the amendments to the directive proposed by MEPs. “There is not one amendment coming from Parliament that is environmentally sound,” says the official.

Despite the uncertainty regarding which amendments will be included in the final version of the directive, the EC official told edie that the directive will be ground-breaking. “Even if the Council was to accept all the amendments Parliament is putting forward – which it won’t – the Directive would still be revolutionary in terms of dealing with waste,” says the EC official.

The official doesn’t believe that the heavy metals study is likely to influence politicians much. “It’s at the stage where decisions are made on principle and the politicians don’t really care about the facts.”

The Okopol study says that “for many applications of heavy metals in vehicles there are alternatives available at least from the perspective of technical feasibility. Many alternatives have even reached the state of large-scale industrial application in routine production”.

Okopol says that “recent legislative developments have already exerted a strong stimulus for manufacturers and suppliers to develop products which are free of heavy metals” and that “the difficulty is how to accommodate the justified requests for interim periods and qualified exceptions without undermining the general goal to phase out lead, cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium, and how to prevent a roll-back of the generally positive trend which can presently be observed”.

Assessing specific uses of heavy metals in vehicle manufacture, the Okopol study concludes that phasing out the following would be possible with no or only a slight increase in costs:

  • lead in steel for machinery purposes
  • lead in zinc coatings
  • lead in aluminium
  • lead in fuel tanks
  • vibration dampers made of lead
  • lead in protective paints
  • lead in stabiliser in plastics (neutral to medium cost increases)
  • lead in brazings (medium cost increase)
  • wheel balancing weights made of lead
  • lead in corrosion preventive coatings (slight to medium cost increase)
  • mercury in lighting devices other than background lighting devices

The study’s authors acknowledge that finding alternatives to the use of mercury in background lighting devices requires more research, but that the research is already underway. They also state that phasing out cadmium in batteries is “technically possible”, but they do not assess the cost of the change.

The study does not recommend the phasing out of mercury in headlight bulbs, and it says that a 100% phase-out of hexavalent chromium in coatings is “not yet appropriate”.

“Where parts and components made of lead, cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium cannot be avoided, it will be crucial to improve the ‘design for recycling’ because otherwise no dismantler will undertake the effort to carefully remove those parts,” states the report, which acknowledges that better design will not be able to keep dismantlers’ costs to current levels and that enforcement will be necessary to ensure that heavy metal dismantling is completed properly. “Ways will have to be found to cover the dismantlers’ additional efforts and costs for dismantling and separate disposal, preferably by internalisation of these additional costs in the product price of new cars.”

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