At events such as this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, a lot of exhibitions and talks are about recycling. But how does recycling work in reality? To check this, I went to a large vehicle dismantling station located 90 km away from Warsaw. There I found out that recycling is not a noble idea, but a tough, international business, which must be profitable. It is not easy to find an idealist in this industry. Fortunately, I met and interviewed one of them.
How does recycling of used vehicles function in the real world? Where used auto parts are sold? What will happen to the recycling business when, someday, electric cars that enter the market today will start breaking down? What will we do in the future with old autonomous cars? I addressed these and few other questions to Bartosz Bielecki, an environmental engineer, co-owner of a large vehicle dismantling station and co-creator of an artistic interior design brand that recycles old auto parts.
TrendNomad.com: Which cars ends at vehicle dismantling stations?
Bartosz Bielecki: Cars which go to Polish vehicle dismantling stations are very old or can not be used anymore. Usually, they are more than fifteen years old or were destroyed in a car accident. We dismantle cars, trucks, delivery cars and motorbicycles. It would be too expensive to repair them in Europe. People prefer to buy newer models.
Do I have to pay when I leave my car at a vehicle dismantling station?
No. The law obligate each station to receive any car. But because of the high competition in the market – in Poland we have between 700 and 800 vehicle dismantling stations – in practice, it is us who pay to the owner for leaving his or her car for dismantling. Rates start from 100 zł [more or less 25 euro – ed.].
What happens to a vehicle, when it enters the station?
We remove from every car everything that can be used again, recycled or recovered. According to law, we must recycle 95 percent of the weight of the vehicle. We reached the level of 98 percent.
First of all, from 50 to 60 percent of the weight of dismantled vehicles in our station are car parts that can be reused. In other words, we can sell them as used car parts on the second-hand market. We check, sort and describe them, but we do not change their form. Our high recovery rate is something exceptional in Poland. Most of the stations recover from 10 to 20 percent of the weight of vehicles.
Usually, engines or their parts, as well as transmissions can be used again. Sometimes tires, car bodies, and interior parts also can be reused. We check every piece. If we would have sold a dud, our customer would never come back. If something does not work, it is clearly marked.
Secondly, about 30 percent of car weight is recycled. Car bodies after flattening go to a smelter, where they are recast and recovered into steel. Unfortunately, this energy-consuming process produces much waste. Let me also mention that old tires granules are used as a component for the construction of roads and for making road cones.
You can not find more environmental friendly way of recycling car parts that reusing them in their original form. Processing of any material, including e.g. compressing and melting down a metal, or grinding and forming plastics, consumes time, energy, and money.
Thirdly, no more than 10 percent vehicle’s weight goes to the so-called energy recovery. That is, combustion in a furnace.
Fourth, materials that are two or three percent of vehicle’s weight can not be used again. Unfortunately, in Poland there are no companies with adequate facilities for managing multi-material waste or brake pads containing asbestos.
Moreover, the law prohibits to re-use catalysts, airbags or seat belts. Sometimes they are used by artist for artistic purpose, but usually, we pass them to a company that utilises such waste.
Where do you sell used car pars?
Two years ago, 80 percent of our sales came from internal Polish market, and only 20 percent was generated by an export. Today this proportion is reversed.
Today in Poland more than half of the trade of used auto parts takes place in the gray area. We are not able to reach the level of their prices. To survive, we had to find new markets. Now, we export the vast majority of used auto parts outside the European Union.
Used car parts are sold to many African countries. Nigeria with more than 170 million people is the biggest market for us. Central Asia’s former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan are also important in this business.
Why did you choose these countries?
You can find there many old cars which the Europeans has already got rid of, or soon will do that. In developing countries popular vehicles are more than 15 years old, and, naturally, require replacement parts.
In Poland, we have already forgotten about terrible roads, but in Africa, it is still the norm. Moreover, people do not service their cars or change oil. They do not care too much to the engine or suspension. When something breaks down, they repair it with used auto parts.
The rich West cares about cars, but replace the entire vehicle when one part breaks down. On the other hand, in Africa, people do not care about regular car maintenance issues, but they repair or replace parts that are broken. Do I understand it correctly?
That’s right . We must also remember that mechanics in Africa usually are not able to determine exactly which part of e.g. the engine broke down, and do not have the tools to make a full diagnostic of a car. Usually, they replace the entire engine that arrived in parts from Europe.
An average citizen of Africa drives a car that is popular in his or her country, and every mechanic knows how to fix this model.
The popularity of car brands in a given country is also an echo of colonial times. For example, in the former French colonies people mainly drive Peugeot, Citroen and Renault.
Recently, wealthier Africans began to buy Japanese and American cars. Four, five years old, with an automatic transmission. But the problem arises when this kind of car stops working. It needs computer diagnostic, which is not available. Nobody can fix it.
Does used car parts also go to China?
China does not allow to import used car parts to the country. However, China buys a lot of scrap metal. They produce steel from it. They use it or they sell it back to us. They also import many polymer materials.
Poland is the largest importer of used cars in Europe. Does this mean that we are also the largest exporter of used auto parts to Africa and Asia?
No. Even more used car parts go there directly from Western Europe. On German, French, Dutch and Spanish roads you can find many ten years old cars, or even older. Some drivers like them, others can not afford newer models, and drive them until they become useless. Naturally, useless by European standards. Soon after they enter a Western vehicle dismantling station, they leave Europe as used auto parts.
And those old cars that are still running, go from Western to Central Europe?
Only some of them go this way. In Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and France there are people who seek for specific brands and models of used cars. They buy them, load them on ships and sell to Africa. This is why some models are so difficult to find by Polish traders.
On the other hand, there are some models of used cars, which over the last decade were imported to Poland in large quantities and practically you can not find them in the Western Europe anymore. Polish owners have started to replace them with newer models. They do not go to a vehicle dismantling stations, because they are still working. Polish used cars dealers, who in the past imported cars from Germany, now send them back to the ports of Hamburg and Antwerp.
Used Mercedes or Volkswagen cars, which over the last decade were imported from Western countries to Poland, now go the other way on carriages.
I have a friend who exports from Poland ten used cars and import one or two each month. On Polish highways towards Germany, you can see car transporters packed with old vehicles. Of course, they are not for sale in Germany. From Western ports, they go by sea to Africa.
(The conversation is interrupted by a ringing phone. Bartosz receives the call and speaks Polish)
(…) Yes, we export used car parts. Monthly we send 20 containers to Africa and Asia. (…) Where are you from? Senegal! Excellent!
Since when Senegalese speak Polish?
Some Polish women who travel to Africa to bring help, after some time return to Poland with new partners. Here they learn the Polish language and start their business, e.g. trading cars and auto parts.
Can you find a buyer for all used part of an engine, transmission or suspension that you have at the station?
No. There are some old models of cars that no one drives anymore. In theory, such car parts should go to a smelter to be recast. But as I said earlier, this process would consume a lot of energy.
My wife and I found another way to reuse old auto parts that will never work in a vehicle again. After thorough cleaning, welding, and varnishing, we make out of them artistic lamps, racks, hangers, tables and small tables. We brand them with [REC.ON] label. Our workshop is located at the same vehicle dismantling station.
We employ two retired welders. They are great craftsmen with over forty years of work experience. They just smell metal parts and immediately know how to weld them for good. They are perfect for this job, as working with a high-grade steel requires a great deal of experience and accuracy.
Do they share their knowledge with a young generation of welders?
No. In Poland, there is a lack of vocational schools. Some with a few welding classes teach students how to use semi-automatic machines. Our products are 100 percent handmade. Probably in the future, we will have to move production of [REC.ON] to Africa. You can not find there great young welders, but we would like to teach them some valuable skills and give them work for a decent wage.
Do you expect any changes in car recycling business due to the new popularity of electric vehicles?
Recycling of electric cars is not fundamentally different from recycling cars with combustion engines. The battery is worth a lot of money. For sure you will find someone who wants to buy and process it. The real problem lies elsewhere.
Car manufacturers use more and more composite materials. Even today car dashboards are made of three or four different mixtures of plastics. Separating them into groups is time-consuming, and the market value of those materials is very low. Therefore dashboards are not recycled, but they go to energy recovery. In other words: usually, they are burnt.
The lighter an electric car is, the longer range it has. Thus, electric vehicles are built of multiple light composite materials. The problem is that composites are difficult to separate, reuse and recycle.
Do you think that directions of trade of used car parts will change around 2030, when the rich West will have to do something with old, first mass-produced autonomous cars?
This may happen. But even if the West suddenly switch to autonomous cars – though such a change does not happen in one moment – developing countries will find suppliers of older technology. They will start producing non-autonomous cars and spare parts for them by themselves, or they will buy them from India and China.
Today, factories in Uzbekistan produce the same car model, which was popular in Europe in the 70s. For us, it is hard to imagine, but they are not equipped with airbags. It is the same car as Opel Kadett and Daewoo Nexia, it just looks slightly different.
Autonomous cars need 5G network to communicate with each other. This technology will not be available everywhere.
We’ll have to figure out what to do with old used autonomous cars that work only under certain technological conditions. Arguably, we will not sell them to developing countries.
Probably the recycling process of autonomous cars should be designed in advance. It means: now.
In theory, each car that is sold in the European Union is designed to be recycled almost entirely. On a paper and at the press conferences this rule looks and sounds great.
In practice, when I request a car manufacturer to provide us a disassembly instructions for selected car parts, I returned empty-handed, or I receive a document that is useless. It is hard to understand, because automakers are obligated to provide detailed information to those involved in a recycling process.
Carmakers are not interested in recycling auto parts, because they do not earn money from this process. They prefer to produce and sell new products. Electric or autonomous cars will not change the basic rule. Business is business.
Cover photo: Max Zieliński
Photos 2-13: TrendNomad.com
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