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Motoring: False prophets of life after death

ABOUT the only material that is being effectively recycled in the car world these days is the advertising pap about recyclability. Most car- makers are at it, promising recyclability rates of 80-90 per cent: proof, the advertisements and PR handouts suggest, of the industry's new-found greenness.

It is nonsense, of course. New cars today are less recyclable than most vehicles of 20 years ago, because they are chock-a-block full of nasty artificial materials, chosen largely because they are cheap to make. Plastic, from which most cabin fittings and more and more exterior components are made, is difficult to recycle.

Cars of the Sixties and earlier had a much higher percentage of good old-fashioned metal, which is marvellously easy to reconstitute. The scrapyards and steel industry have been recycling partners for years; indeed, the former, despite its visual ugliness, is one of the best examples of motoring greenness. Car-makers - or at least some of them - are making much greater efforts to recycle plastics, and attempts are being made to use fewer types (recycling plastic is a bit like recycling bottles: brown and clear glass should not be mixed, nor should different textures and sorts of plastic).

Progress is also being made in tagging components to facilitate their reuse, but the crux of the problem is not so much how to recycle cars as to ensure that they are recycled. How many new, 85 per cent recyclable cars will actually finish their days in recycling centres? According to a senior engineering acquaintance, 'well under 5 per cent'.

The only way that 85 per cent of a BMW 3-series can achieve life after death is if its owner, at the time of its expiry, can be persuaded to give it a proper burial. BMW has seven recycling plants in Germany, but only one in Britain - in Bolney, Sussex. Unless the car, or a good part of it, is in reasonable condition - and, of course, it most likely won't be - the owner will have to pay the recycling centre to take it. In Germany, this costs about 200 marks (more than pounds 80).

These approved centres employ many ingenious ways of recycling BMWs. The components that can be reused - engines, gearboxes and alternators, for instance - will be sold on to the second-hand trade, with a BMW warranty. Old oil and fluids will be burnt, to help to heat and provide energy for the centre. Batteries and brake fluid can be used again. Steel and aluminium are easily reconstituted. Plastics, polyester seat coverings and those mixed synthetic materials that at present are difficult to recycle, can be shredded and used as sound-proofing.

BMW and some other German manufacturers are urging the EC to make recycling at official dismantling centres compulsory. One idea is that owners should continue to pay road tax until their vehicles are scrapped at such centres.

It seems to me, however, that the only way to ensure that cars are properly recycled may be to do away with car ownership altogether; and this would have other important environmental benefits.

Instead of 'buying' a new car, we would take out a lease on it, probably of 10 years. If, after three years, we wished to sell the car, we would sell the remaining seven-year lease.

After the 10 years - by which time the car would probably be on its third or fourth 'owner' - it would be returned to the factory-approved dealer from whom it was leased. If the dealer felt the car had reached the end of its useful life, it would be properly recycled; if not, a new lease would be issued.

Such a system has numerous other environmental benefits. The car would be properly serviced and maintained, as a condition of the lease. So, unlike most old cars at present, it would not squander fuel and belch emissions; nor would it run around on bald tyres or with defective brakes.

Regular checks could be made on the condition of the car's catalytic converter, the device, now compulsory on new cars made for sale in the EC, which removes about 90 per cent of exhaust toxins.

The trouble is, the converters are delicate: they start to deteriorate after only 50,000 miles, half the usual life of a car, and at present no checks are made on their efficacy after sale.

And under the leasing system, licensed service centres would maintain all cars, which would do away with the need for an MoT.

Such a system could be less expensive for car-users. After all, the manufacturers would know that much of the raw materials would be returned to them from the recycling centres.

The cost of leasing an old car might be higher than that of running such a vehicle today. But as today's cars age, they cannot be held together by tape, wire and an occasional spare from Halfords; not when expensive electronic control units oversee all their main functions, and they contain a host of other mechanical and electronic complications. The DIY mechanic is fast heading for extinction.

One fact should be borne in mind when evaluating how best to recycle cars. According to Dr Horst-Henning Wolf, head of recycling at BMW, 90 per cent of the energy used up in the lifetime of a typical car comes from the fuel that it burns; and only 10 per cent is spent on the manufacturing process.

Thus, he says, improvements in a car's fuel efficiency would be more beneficial than more efficient recyclability.

Mind you, clever manufacturers, including BMW, are aiming for both.