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Ecology: Where cars will go when they die: BMW is stressing the recyclability of its models, looking to the day owners will have to pay for their disposal

AT ITS pilot recycling plant in Landshut, Germany, BMW has developed what might be called an 'unfactory' for its cars. There are optimal procedures: it takes two workers 45 minutes to strip all the re-useable parts from a late 1970s vehicle. The whole process, starting with the initial draining of all fluids (an essential of environmentally- correct recycling), costs DM200 (about pounds 87).

Landshut's role is in essence that of a scrap merchant - and if BMW's ideas take off it is the back-street car-strippers who will be hit hardest. At present there are some 6,000 mainly small firms in Germany engaged in traditional forms of stripping and scrapping cars, usually with little attention paid to the environmental side of the business. The BMW method would sharply reduce this number to an authorised, high-standard elite.

'Firms will have to make the investments and meet the requirements or go bust,' said Horst-Henning Wolf, head of the German automobile manufacturer's recycling programme.

BMW is particularly keen to establish itself as a maker of green cars. As a producer of often high-powered, flashy machines, it has become the target of environmentalists. The idea of the recyclable car is one of its the ways it is fighting back. Its advertisements for the new 3 Series stress that a significant proportion of its parts can be recycled. Landshut is part of the same effort.

However, the Economics Ministry in Bonn, with its eye on preserving jobs and what it calls preserving free competition, has yet to be persuaded. Much heralded, the German recycling directive remains stuck in some ministerial drawer.

Mr Wolf's frustration is palpable. 'This is not something that can be done by one manufacturer alone, or piecemeal. It must be nationwide, Europewide, and underpinned by law,' he says. The idea is that, at the end of its life, every car must be taken to an authorised recycler, the only place where an owner can get an official disposal certificate. Without such a certificate, an owner will go on paying road taxes because the vehicle cannot be de-registered.

While waiting for the politicians, the manufacturers have made some common progress. The knowledge that few recyclers will be able to survive from just one make has led to a standardised colour-coding for all recyclable parts made from similar materials. The disassembly handbooks for all European makes will adopt this coding. The German manufacturers have invited their Japanese and US counterparts to Frankfurt in May in an effort to persuade them to adopt the standard internationally.

But the actual co-operation between makers remains limited. There is some tentative sharing of facilities between BMW and Renault. Overall, though, there remains a 'great difference of intensity' in the approaches of companies to the recycling challenge, according to Mr Wolf.

In the expectation that Brussels will have established some sort of legislation by 1995, BMW continues to pump substantial sums of money into its programme.

'It is no good asking me what it costs, because I do not want to know. It would be frightening,' he said. BMW is convinced, however, that the commitment is essential, not just for good environmental reasons, but for sound business ones as well.

'This is a clear case of needing to think strategically. In the long run, to maintain our place as a producer this development is essential,' Mr Wolf added.

Once proper disposal of vehicles becomes legally enforced, financial advantages will be drawn by owners of cars whose producers have invested most in maximising the number of re- useable parts, and in designing cars that are easy to take apart.

The company is so far the only car manufacturer working with a network of recycling plants - seven in Germany, 14 in all worldwide, including its most modern plant, at Bolney Motors in Sussex. The idea is to have built up an extensive network by 1995, including 15 partner plants in the UK.

At present, there is nothing but a BMW owner's environmental conscience to make him go to an authorised recycler and pay the DM200, when other garages - not operating according to acceptable standards, as BMW puts it - will perform the job for nothing.

'The difference is that once the legal norms are introduced, including charging for recycling, then those firms which made the effort to get involved with BMW early will have secured a future, while many of the others will go under,' said Klaus Vornberger, head of the Landshut pilot plant.

With its latest 3 Series car BMW manages to recycle over more than 40 per cent of the non-metal components, which make up a quarter of most cars. These plastics and rubbers are the problem materials, not the metal which has traditionally been recycled by the steel industry. The aim is to get as quickly as possible to near- 100 per cent recyclability.

(Photographs omitted)