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Driving up plastic pollution: how vehicles contribute to the global crisis

Vehicles and automotive parts are increasingly made of plastic, which is almost never recycled. Karen Wirsig, Program Manager at Environmental Defence in Canada, provides Auto Recycling with her views on how the vehicle recycling industry can play a part in helping to combat this global crisis.


Driving up plastic pollution: how vehicles contribute to the global crisis p
Karen Wirsig

The reality is that recycling is a challenge for all plastics, not just those used in vehicles. Of all the plastic ever made worldwide, it is estimated that only nine per cent was recycled even once, and only two per cent of recycled plastic is turned back into a similar product.

Right now, about 12 per cent of an average 1,800 kg vehicle is plastics that mostly end up shredded and sent to landfill or, worse, incinerators, where they emit greenhouse gases and other toxic chemicals into the air.

Plastics are made from a variety of polymers and additives that are generally difficult to sort for recycling. Virgin plastic, mostly made from subsidized fossil fuels, is relatively cheap to make. The low economic value of plastic scrap means it’s generally not worth going to the trouble of trying to do anything with it other than sending it to landfill. As a result, we treat plastic like garbage, even when it’s an important component in durable goods like automobiles.

In Europe, the burning of plastic waste can count toward waste “recovery” targets if some energy or fuel is generated in the process. But incineration is not recycling, and emissions and waste byproducts certainly contribute to a growing plastic pollution crisis around the world.

Now a group of 49 countries, including Canada and the member states of the European Union, have signed on to a high-ambition coalition to end plastic pollution worldwide by 2040.

In Canada, the federal government has set an even more ambitious domestic goal of Zero Plastic Waste by 2030. We’ll have to address the plastic used in the automotive sector to achieve that goal. It is estimated that end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) generated more than 300,000 tonnes of plastic waste in 2016, which has likely grown since.

The key to dealing with these plastics at their end of life is to change how these products are designed and built in the first place.

In some cases, plastics might be replaced with other materials. When plastics are used, the component should be made of a single polymer thermoplastic – for example, polypropylene or polyethylene – and without harmful additives that pose a hazard during manufacture, use, disassembly and recycling.

Plastic parts should be assembled with screws and other fasteners that can be easily removed for disassembly instead of adhesives or solders. Like some other parts, they could be refurbished and used again as many times as possible. If the plastic houses critical minerals, it’s even more important that the casings provide easy access to them.

We also need global requirements for vehicles that have reached the end of life to be disassembled so that the parts, including those made from plastic, can be refurbished and reused and any toxic substances – including fluids and mercury switches – removed and treated before disposal.

While disassembly is common in Europe, a federal government report estimates that only 35% of ELVs are dismantled in Canada. Almost all of the remaining ELVs are shredded whole, and only the metals are recovered for recycling and reuse. The rest of the vehicles, including any toxic fluids, are sent to landfill or incinerators.

The good news is that the disassembly of ELVs – including mass transit vehicles and trucks, is also beneficial for the auto industry as it enables the recovery and reuse of critical minerals and supports quality jobs.

Given the continued importance of the auto sector in Canada’s economy, design for circularity and disassembly should be part of the just transition away from fossil fuels and toward a regenerative economy. Unifor, a union that represents nearly 45,000 workers in the Canadian automotive industry, supports improved recovery of vehicles in Canada as a local job creator.

Refurbishing and reusing manufactured products is key to a low-pollution future with good jobs. We’ll have to stop treating plastics, including auto components, like garbage, to arrive at that destination.