INTERNATIONAL: France Speeds Ahead With Vehicle Recycling

Approximately 2 million new automobiles are registered in France each year. After a typical life expectancy of 10 years, 1.8 million automobiles require disposal.

As of 1993, French salvage yards reportedly processed 80 percent of the end-of-life vehicles and recovered 75 percent, by weight, of the vehicles' materials. Each year, the unrecovered 25 percent, equivalent to 280,000 metric tons of shredder residue, was sent to landfills.

Recycling efforts have traditionally focused on the metals content (see chart). In the best-case scenario, batteries also are recovered and tires are retreaded or incinerated.

In view of France's dwindling landfill capacity and the government's policy of waste "valorization," which includes recycling and re-use, new solutions are being sought to cut the residue percentage. This task is a challenging one since the residue consists of heterogeneous materials such as windshield glass, seat foam, plastic in the bumpers and interior trim, textiles, rubber and difficult-to-recycle composites.

As of 1993, automobile manufacturers processed 300,000 scrapped cars a year. The trend is toward large-scale operations, such as a new facility in Athis-Mons, which can process 45,000 cars annually. Pilot plants where cars are dismantled on reverse production lines have demonstrated that the residue can be reduced to 14 percent.

The National Council of Automobile Professions (CNPA) launched the "Green Plan" in 1992 to reduce residue by greater amounts. In Phase I, CNPA members established a network of collection points for wastes associated with scrap cars, particularly used motor oil, tires and batteries. Phase II introduced a program to enable salvage companies to become "Green Salvage Yards." Interested parties sign a statement of commitment to reaffirm the industry's code of ethics and then must fulfill requirements such as:

* Training by the National Association of Automotive Training;

* Compliance with current and future environmental regulations;

* Disclosure obligations to the general public and provision of written information on site;

* Active participation in efforts to improve the treatment and recycling of end-of-life vehicles; and

* Compliance with technical specifications.

These specifications include having a paved, adequately sized area to store vehicles prior to salvaging. Other requirements include storm-water containment, minimization of noise and visual impacts, leak-proof storage of batteries and proper draining and storage of all fluids. After the removal of potential pollutants, the automobiles are stripped of all marketable recyclables before they are shredded for material or energy recovery.

Compliance requires considerable investments and generally takes six months to a year. An independent company, SGS Qualitest, provides verification. According to Laurent Chauvin of CNPA, 50 out of the 300 salvage yard members have fulfilled the obligations. When all conditions are met, an eco-label showing a fragmented car encircled by a green arrow is awarded as a symbol of quality.

Automobile recycling costs are linked to the "polluter pays" principle, which holds those who degrade the environment financially responsible for measures to reduce or avoid pollution. It's expected that consumers will ultimately bear the cost; currently the most secure financing plans levy an advance charge for future recycling.

Striving to keep ahead of regulations, France's auto dismantling industry has put together a voluntary framework agreement - its goal is 95 percent valorization by the end of the century. A June 1994 French law regarding certification of green salvage yards calls for maximum reduction of pollution and waste from scrap cars, contingent upon economic viability. Decrees putting the law into effect were expected to be promulgated in late December 1994.

Spearheading the European Union's Priority Waste Stream Programme for end-of-life vehicles, the French have proposed a strategy that promotes material recovery and design for recyclability. The payment scheme will be based on market forces.

The French auto dismantling industry sees itself as a pioneer since other countries have few lessons to offer, said CNPA President Henry de Kilmaine. "On the contrary, some of them have more problems than we do."