Coming soon to a roadside near you: 1.5m dumped cars

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A plague of abandoned cars on Britain's streets is likely to worsen substantially this year under new EU regulations.

Whereas in the past councils and the occasional optimistic scrap dealer could be expected to remove some of the dangerous unsightly wrecks, tough new laws mean that from April the rusting piles of junk will be re-classified as hazardous waste.

Under the lugubriously named End of Life Vehicles Directive, aimed at cutting waste from disused cars as well as recycling their various components, old wrecks can no longer be sent to the scrapyard. They will have to be specially treated at disposal or recycling plants.

But the UK has just one plant capable of carrying out the process outlined in the directive. And although there are already 600,000 cars stockpiled, the plant can only handle 12,000 cars a year. That means that on top of three million fridges expected to be dumped because of a similar EU law, millions of cars could join them.

Abandoned cars are already a serious problem. The Department for Transport last year estimated – in the absence of proper nationwide figures – that 350,000 cars were abandoned in 2000 while 1.8 million were scrapped.

The numbers are expected to rocket once the vehicles life directive comes into force on 21 April. But the Government has yet to decide on how it will be implemented.

Conservative environment spokesman Peter Ainsworth said: "First we have a dumped fridge crisis and now we face a dumped car crisis. When this directive comes into force, the country's roadsides could become littered with them."

Local authoritiesare likely to be made responsible for clearing abandoned cars but no extra funding has been made available to help meet the additional costs. It is expected that car makers will eventually assume financial responsibility for recycling. But there will be a gap between the directive coming into force and the transfer of responsibility into their hands The deadline is not until 2007.

Each year more than 1.5 million cars reach the end of their lives. And 75 per cent of the weight of each car – mostly parts and metal – is recycled. Other materials, including plastic, glass and rubber, prove more difficult and these end up as landfill amounting to around 0.3 per cent of total UK controlled waste.

But the End of Life Vehicles Directive states that cars can only be scrapped by authorised dismantlers or shredders who must meet tight, new environmental treatment standards. Last owners must be able to return their vehicles into these systems free of charge – but only from 2007.

In the meantime, presumably, the vehicles be dumped with the fridges.