Is recycling old cars, instead of selling them abroad, better for the planet?

The theory has always been that, on the whole, it is better to keep an old car running than to throw it away and buy a new one. A new car would likely be cleaner in the exhaust, but it would come at a carbon cost in terms of manufacturing, shipping and more.

Electric cars seemed to tip the scales, although there had been arguments over the carbon intensity of electric car production, especially since batteries require such high energy inputs and d ‘significant extraction of precious metals.

With the country on track to meet its goal of one million electric vehicles in circulation by 2030, our current fleet of diesel and gasoline models will become obsolete much sooner.

The average age of a car on Irish roads is now close to nine, but as the public’s appetite for electric propulsion increases, internal combustion models will become much less desirable.

What we should avoid is flogging these cars overseas to countries with less stringent environmental laws. In 2020, the issue of heavily polluting used cars shipped to Africa was raised. According to a BBC report, of 14 million used cars shipped to African countries from the United States, Europe and Japan, around 80 percent “did not meet minimum safety and environmental standards. in exporting countries ”. Basically we are exporting our smog.

To be fair, Ireland doesn’t export as many used cars. According to the National Transfrontier Shipment Office (NTFSO), which is part of Dublin City Council, Ireland exported just 133 used vehicles to Africa in 2019, and only 88 were shipped in 2020.

“Exporting used vehicles from Ireland to African countries is a long established practice,” the office said. “NTFSO inspects these shipments to ensure the vehicles are in working order and suitable for shipment as a used vehicle. The statistics refer only to vehicles which have been inspected by the NTFSO and as such do not represent the total number of used vehicles exported from Ireland.

In other words, there could be a lot more vehicles being shipped that just haven’t been inspected.

A study on the shipment of cars to African countries by the Dutch Inspectorate for the Human Environment and Transport found: “These vehicles emit 90% more emissions because they do not meet the minimum standard. of Euro4 emissions.

The cars are older and therefore simply weren’t subject to higher emission standards; with age, wear and tear, more pollutants are emitted; and many of the cars shipped will have been stripped of emission control equipment. Catalytic converters – which use high-value metals like palladium to filter out the worst exhaust gases – will certainly have been phased out.


The answer is to start recycling these cars. Doing so could create a significant opportunity for Ireland. Obviously, it is better that this recycling work be done locally when a car has reached the end of its useful life (what is known as an end-of-life vehicle, or ELV) rather than just sending out shipments. vehicles that have died abroad to be reused or recycled.

“There is not yet a complete circular system for vehicles and this represents an opportunity for us here in Ireland,” says Elena Wrelton, environmental compliance manager at ELV Environmental Services CLG (Elves). “It cannot be denied that vehicle recycling has reached impressive levels. However, the recycling process to date has tended to turn high-quality metal and plastic from discarded vehicles into cookie boxes and fence posts. Recycling, yes, but not the high-quality, high-value-added recycling desired in a circular economy.

Jaguar Land Rover has spearheaded the Reality Project to recycle the aluminum from their cars into new cars, a closed loop in the circular economy. Renault has started using materials from old seat belts to make trim for its new Zoe electric car and uses over 50kg of recycled plastics in Space (only in Europe).

Other manufacturers are looking to incorporate low value materials from other waste streams. Volvo, Audi and Jaguar Land Rover have started using Econyl, a recycled fiber from old fishing nets in their new cars. Fiat also does this in the upholstery of its new 500th under the playful name of Seaqual.

It all helps but, Wrelton says, we need to focus more, in a political sense, on how we use, reuse and recycle cars and their components.

“When something goes wrong, like an accident or mechanical breakdown, repairing has become increasingly difficult due to advances in technology, thus limiting the market for reuse,” she says. “So how do we take these signs of change to the next level? This requires creating a demand for circular products and services. In our current system, neither the economy nor what we know to be “environmentally correct” can be relied on to create the necessary change.

“Change requires the creation of demand either through incentives or through binding legislation. As a company, we have been inspired to drive safe and modern cars that are fuel efficient. More recently, the push has shifted to electric cars, BIK exemptions, subsidies, and impending diesel and gasoline vehicle bans, all aimed at spurring the transition. On the other hand, consumers are discouraged from driving older cars through emissions taxes, while insurance policies are not issued for young people driving older vehicles. “

According to Elves, Ireland has for the first time achieved the two recycling targets set out in the End-of-Life Vehicle (ELV) Directive. This meant 86.37% reuse and recycling, 95.17% when other forms of recovery are included. The recently released figures for 2019 show further improvement with 87.43% and 95.21% being the current levels of reuse and recycling and reuse, recycling and other recoveries respectively.

As always, there is still more to do. “The rise of electric vehicles will dramatically change the circular economy of vehicles,” Wrelton says. “They have the potential to last much longer than cars of yore, having fewer moving parts. The longevity of electric vehicle batteries, often identified as a weak point, exceeds initial expectations and they have high potential for reuse. in other high added value applications such as energy storage.

“New and improved recycling technologies for batteries are also developing rapidly. Car manufacturers are getting more and more involved. VW is developing a recovery and recycling operation in Salzgitter, and Renault has also announced a partnership with Solvay and Veolia to create a battery recycling process. The intention of these projects is to create circular closed loops, with materials from used batteries being recycled into new batteries.

“This creates high value-added recycling and also helps address the challenges faced by manufacturers sourcing high-impact raw materials from regions with questionable human rights records.

“Change is happening in the auto industry, whether it is driven by incentives, legislation or consumer habits. If we want this change to be circular, there is no quick fix. The lifecycle of the vehicle will need to be examined to understand where beneficial circular loops can be created and what interventions are needed to support them. Equally important will be the cultural change needed and should not be underestimated. ”

Car manufacturers

Even the automakers are getting into the recycling law. Recently, Mini enlisted fashion designer Paul Smith – whose signature stripes have already appeared on the company’s cars – to help create the Mini Strip. It is – for now – a unique and customized version of an electric Mini Cooper SE, but one that the Smith and Mini design department has reduced to the essentials. With the exception of a few small Paul Smith badges, this Mini looks so simple it’s almost like it’s been left in the bare metal. In fact, this is quite correct – other than a thin transparent film sprayed to protect against corrosion, it is bare metal – with grind marks and imperfections that are normally painted.

Even the wheel arch extensions and exterior components were secured with screw and bolt heads left exposed. Some of the plastic exterior trims were 3D printed using recycled plastic, salvaged from the sea. Meanwhile, the grille trims and aero wheel trims are made from recycled plexiglass, as is the huge panoramic sunroof.

Inside, almost all trim has been removed except for the dashboard itself, the top of the dashboard, and the rear shelf. Everything else you see is the exposed steel of the car’s construction, albeit painted in Smith’s signature dark blue tint. The large screen that occupies the center of a standard Mini’s dashboard has been removed and in its place is a simple cell phone holder, which connects your phone to the car and turns it into the Mini’s media center.

The seats are not leather, but are a simple woven fabric. The floor mats are made from recycled rubber. The panels that cover the dashboard and the door tops are made from recycled cork. According to Mini: “Due to the recyclability of cork and its status as a renewable raw material that actually fixes carbon dioxide during its production, there is potential here to reduce greenhouse gases.

There is bicycle handlebar tape on the rim of the steering wheel, not leather, while the airbag in the center of the steering wheel is covered with a simple and lightweight mesh. Again, there are screw heads visible here, and that, according to Mini, is so you could see how easy it would be to take the flywheel apart at a later date and reuse the aluminum again at a later date. inside.

The door panels receive the same mesh material that covers the airbag, while the handles are made from recycled climbing ropes, finished in a bright orange, just like the seat belts.

Smith was “incredibly grateful” for the opportunity to redesign the Mini and to have the “freedom to think sideways” on the car’s design. “Together I think we’ve created something really unique, going back to basics, cutting things down and taking the car apart.”