European rules on use of heavy metals in cars further tightened

European rules on use of heavy metals in cars further tightened

Since 1 July 2003, vehicles have no longer been permitted to contain any lead, mercury, cadmium or hexavalent chromium. These heavy metals are too harmful for the environment. The rules sound simple, but are less clear-cut in practice. Even today in 2016 not all of these materials have disappeared, although the automotive industry and its suppliers have developed an alternative for most.

Together with the European decision on heavy metals in end-of-life vehicles, a list of exemptions was published. This list enumerates the applications in which heavy metals are still permitted, because at the moment of publication in 2003, no alternatives had yet been found. This list is constantly updated and as soon as an alternative comes onto the market, the exemption for the heavy metal in question is scrapped, so it can no longer be used.

In 2014, for example, it was determined that a series of uses of lead, in particular many of the uses in soldering, could be removed from the list of exemptions, because good alternatives had become available. “It is excellent news that the automotive industry has time and again succeeded in redesigning the vast majority of car parts in which heavy metals are still used, but without the heavy metals. This is a topflight performance since it requires replacing a metal that at one time appeared to be the best possible choice, with something else, despite the fact that demands on cars are themselves constantly rising,” said Pieter Kuiper, senior project manager at ARN.

For ARN, the tighter rules are more than welcome. “If cars are made cleaner, then the residual materials from cars will automatically also be cleaner. This is positive both for the environment and the economy. Removing small volumes of contaminants – in the case of lead, after all we are talking about just a few milligrams per car – is far more expensive relative to the rest of the recycling process,” suggested Kuiper. “For the car recycling industry it is fantastic news that dangerous metals are gradually being eradicated. Partly as a result, the materials that emerge as products in the recycling process are themselves of ever higher quality.”

Seventh revision

“This is the seventh revision of the list of exemptions since the Directive came into force. Because technology is constantly developing, new solutions are constantly being found to replace heavy metals. Whenever an automotive manufacturer develops an alternative in collaboration with its supplier(s), the proposed solution first has to be thoroughly tested for feasibility. During a public consultation period, one of the market parties then requests the removal of the exemption, one of the reasons being that this move creates an opportunity to sell the solution. The process takes a considerable time, and on top of that you have to consider the useful life of the car, at present around 18 years. It will therefore still be quite some time before all heavy metals have been eradicated,” explained Eugène Moerkerk, responsible for Sustainability & Technology at the RAI Association. In his view, the same applies to replacement parts. “This helps ensure that old stocks of spare parts do not suddenly become unsalable, when an exemption is removed from the list.”

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