If it hadn't been for Henry Ford's drive to create a mass market for cars, wrote Lee Iacocca in TIME last year, America wouldn't have a middle class today. Undoubtedly, the car was the most important engine of economic growth in the 20th century. But Ford's American Dream is fast becoming Europe's environmental nightmare. For unlike old soldiers, redundant cars do not simply fade away.
While a car's metal components, which account for about 75% of its weight, can be reused, the remainder--a mix of plastic, rubber, fluids and paint that often contains toxic substances like mercury, cadmium and lead--is shredded into "fluff" and buried under garbage dumps. The environmental group Friends of the Earth contends that this "fluff" accounts for around a tenth of the hazardous waste in Europe. And with 9 million cars discarded every year, the amount of land left to contaminate is dwindling fast. While carmakers now have an array of new, more easily recyclable materials from which to choose, say environmentalists, the pressures to work quickly and keep costs low often outweigh ecological concerns. What is needed is some incentive for car designers to think about the environmental implications of their work.
Last week, the European Parliament provided just such an incentive when it approved a directive that shifts responsibility for the environmental impact of a vehicle over its entire life cycle--from design to disposal--squarely onto the manufacturers' shoulders. Some requirements--a near-ban on the use of toxic heavy metals, and mandated recycling rates of 80% and 85% for cars going on the market after 2006 and 2015, respectively--are far-reaching but feasible. New cars can be adapted, with some effort, to comply with new regulations. But the law will also apply retroactively and force carmakers to pick up the full tab for disposing of every auto they ever produced. The prospect of recycling cars that weren't built to be recycled, says Camille Blum, secretary-general of the Association of European Car Manufacturers (acea), is "unbearable from a financial point of view." acea believes the measure will cost around $23 billion, based on a recycling cost of around $155 a car and an estimated 150 million cars currently on the E.U.'s roads.
Christian Hey, E.U. policy director of the European Environmental Bureau, says that the car industry's estimates are "grossly exaggerated." Citing a figure of around $2.5 billion, he says that acea's numbers are wrong--it costs less than $80 to recycle a car--and omit from the calculations the fact that cars built in the early to mid '80s, which are the most difficult to recycle, will largely have "disappeared" by 2006. But Prof. Garel Rhys, director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School in Wales, agrees with the car industry's figures. "There isn't an awful lot more they can do at the moment," he says. "Either the technology isn't there or it's just not cost-effective."
Perhaps. But the environmental lobby makes the equally valid point that unless the law is made retroactive, the contamination of Europe's soil and water will only get worse. They have a champion in Margot Wallström, the European Commissioner for the environment, who contends that manufacturers of consumer goods should pay for any damage they do to the environment, directly or indirectly. "We want producers to really think how they make cars, how they could do it differently," she said in a TV interview just weeks after her appointment last September. "[This law] will leave producers with no choice but to use raw materials more sensibly." And it's just her first salvo in a continuing campaign. Her next mission: to push through a directive on recycling electrical and electronic equipment. Sweeping in scope and scale--up to 90% of everything from PCs to dishwashers to toys will have to be reused--it's likely to be even more controversial.
Manufacturers will be watching its progress through the halls of power closely--and with more than a little concern. The recycling requirements could not have come at a worse time for carmakers, whose already slim profit margins are being squeezed even more by pressure to reduce prices. Yet, in an unprecedented move, legislators have put environmental concerns above the interests of an industry that accounts for almost 15% of the E.U.'s gdp and employs more than 4 million of its citizens. The shift in the balance of power caught the complacent car industry off guard. But even the intervention of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and some frantic eleventh-hour lobbying for last-minute amendments that would allow costs to be shared with consumers, went unheeded.
Environmentalists are undeterred. Says Mike Childs, senior waste campaigner at Friends of the Earth, "You can't put a price on clean soil and water." Nobody could argue with that. But asking an industry that has built its success on ease of assembly to become equally at ease with disassembly over the course of a few short years may be going too far, too fast. Henry Ford--no environmentalist--would be horrified. But he might find some consolation in the exemption for vintage cars, or cherished vehicles as they are quaintly dubbed. Soon, they'll be the only cars allowed to rust in peace.