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New EU rules must boost plastic car parts recycling – and have a knock-on effect worldwide

Bumpers, gears, tyres… Upcoming EU legislation is about to raise the bar for rules for reusing and recycling auto parts, potentially including a dedicated target for plastic component recycling rates. Standards will be crucial to make sure policy objectives are realised in practice. Both policymakers and standardisers are facing a unique window of opportunity. Fanny Rateau, Programme Manager, ECOS – Environmental Coalition on Standards tells us more.
New EU rules must boost plastic car parts recycling – and have a knock-on effect worldwide p
Fanny Rateau

Around 50% of a car made today is plastic – between 150 to 200 kilograms of it. With some 65 million new cars sold every year worldwide, making sure that we reuse and recycle most plastic auto parts will be an important element in our fight against plastic pollution. By boosting the recycling and reuse of plastic auto parts, laws and standards can make a real difference.

The upcoming revised End-of-Life Vehicles (ELV) Directive will open a crucial opportunity to improve the circularity of plastic components in vehicles.

The Directive will impact auto parts significantly, as it will likely introduce a dedicated target for reusing and recycling plastic car components. To date, only a general target is imposed on the recycling of all vehicle parts, both plastic and non-plastic. In 2019, 89.6 % of car parts and materials were reused and recycled in terms of weight. This is positive news. However, while parts made of heavy materials such as steel are widely recycled, it is often not the case for lightweight plastics.

What to look out for in the upcoming Commission proposal? Two aspects will be decisive. First, only the so-called ‘post-consumer plastics’ should be eligible as ‘recycled’ for meeting the new reuse and recycling targets. This means that plastics dubbed as ‘recycled’ should come from cars that were actually used, not from industrial scrap.

Second, we need strict part repair and dismantlability requirements, a product passport providing all relevant information, and bans on certain hazardous chemicals currently used in part manufacturing that impede their recycling.

To make sure that rules are clearly defined also at the technical level, the European Commission will request the development of new standards to underpin legislation in parallel.

Standards as such will be a crucial element of the climate transition. Many new environmental laws rely on details set by standards, which define, for example, what we mean by biodegradable plastics or repairable appliances. For auto parts, they define, for instance, test methods relating to safety requirements for laminated glass used on windshields or tempered glass on side and rear windows, making sure they are shatter-proof.

New EU rules must boost plastic car parts recycling – and have a knock-on effect worldwide p two

Commission-requested standards, which are developed mainly by industry representatives, will be vital for companies to ensure compliance with the law, and for policy objectives to become a reality for auto parts right from the design stage. For example, standardised dismantlable parts make it easier to remove them and then reuse them.

Nonetheless, we need to remember that standards should support legislation – not the other way around. Definitions and criteria related to what terms such as ‘reusable’ or ‘recyclable’ mean should be first laid out in legislation, in this case, the new ELV Directive, and only on this basis should new standards be developed.

The shape this Directive and the accompanying standards take will be crucial for auto parts reuse and recycling, and not only in Europe. Whatever policymakers decide in Brussels will have a knock-on effect worldwide. After all, the European Union is one of the largest markets in the world.

It goes without saying: technological innovations could (and should!) dramatically reduce CO2 emissions from cars. But vehicles will continue to add to the plastic pollution crisis unless policymakers truly rise to the challenge. Standards will be a crucial partner in that fight. In 2022, the European Union has an opportunity to lead the way.