New technology brings revolution in recycling scrapped cars
October 20th, 2014
“Wealth from waste” is a phrase not normally associated with cars in scrapyards.
But a new technology hopes to enable almost 100 per cent of old vehicles to be recycled or turned into energy, with the commissioning this month of the world’s largest industrial waste gasification plant at Oldbury, West Midlands.
The project is part of the growing “cleantech” sector, an area of the green economy that covers everything from renewable energy to smart grids and car sharing. A report this month by Cleantech Group, a US consultancy, put the UK second behind the US in its annual ranking of start-ups in the sector.
Recycling and reducing waste is a big challenge for all modern economies with countries seeking increasingly to reduce carbon emissions and conserve raw materials.
In 2012, the latest annual figures, Britain generated 85m tonnes of all types of waste, with 21m tonnes ending up in landfill, according to a report in July by the government’s Green Investment Bank.
Within that, metals recycling is a £5.6bn-a-year business, with 13m tonnes of steel, aluminium and other metals recovered from cars, food and drink cans, cookers, fridges and other white goods in 2005, according to the British Metals Recycling Association, the industry body.
Three-quarters of the steel recovered is exported, while the rest ends up as feedstock for the British steel industry.
Britain scraps more than 1m vehicles every year but it is hoped recycling rates will improve with the Oldbury plant, which has been developed in a £100m joint venture between Chinook Sciences and European Metals Recycling, Britain’s largest metals recycling company.
EMR already has 10 mechanical car shredder facilities, the largest handling 240 vehicles an hour. It processes 2m tonnes of car and other metal waste a year. Before the plant and a previous investment to recover the plastic waste in cars, the company was sending 500,000 tonnes to landfill.
Chinook’s waste gasification process is like an industrial-scale pressure cooker that turns wood and other organic material, such as carpet, foam and wood, into gas, stripping out clean metal ready to be recycled.
“There is so much wiring in a car these days that, short of having a guy with a Stanley knife, this is the only way to recover it,” says Martin Nye, head of Chinook’s European business.
The synthetic gas that is produced is similar to natural gas and can be used to power steam turbines to produce electricity.
Rising landfill taxes have been a big factor driving developments. In January 2006, the EU set a recycling target for scrapped cars of 85 per cent.
Last year, Britain achieved 88 per cent according to the BMRA. But from January next year, the bar rises to 95 per cent.
“The reality is that the only way those targets are going to be met is to get into this sort of technology. You can’t meet those targets by dismantling spare parts off a car,” says Graeme Carus, EMR’s director of business development.
Chinook calculates the plant will achieve recycling and recovery rates of 99 per cent – the 1 per cent being ash and glass shards left after the process is complete.
Mark White, chief technical specialist at carmaker Jaguar Land Rover, says: “The development of a high-tech infrastructure in the UK to recycle material would be very welcome.” He adds that his company would use recycled metal from plants such as Chinook’s for new parts.
But, as car companies look to develop lighter weight vehicles to reduce fuel consumption, Ian Hetherington, BMRA’s director-general, warns that these high recycling rates may be difficult to sustain.
“To reduce CO2 emissions, lightweight vehicles may sound like a good idea. But replacing metal with carbon fibre or composites will dramatically affect how much of the vehicle can be reused, recycled or recovered.”