Fleet News

Life after death in the grave trade of recycling

UNTIL you actually witness the scene, it is difficult to understand the emotional impact of seeing 30 stately Rolls Royce Phantoms lined up, like inmates in automotive death row, ready for execution.

A combined worth of £7.5 million, these glorious new luxurious limousines have had their lives cut short before a single one could cosset a well-tailored bottom around the glamorous capitals of the world, by being broken into pieces.

And although it doesn't go on sale until September, dozens of BMW's latest car, the 1-series, have already reached the end of the road.

Lots of examples of the 1-series, the new baby hatchback model developed to challenge the Volkswagen Golf, have made the one-way trip to a grey, sombre-looking factory on the outskirts of Munich.

Known simply as RDC, the installation is the graveyard of thousands of BMW Group products and is thought to be the motor industry's only manufacturer-operated recycling and dismantling centre.

Just a few minutes' drive from the landmark cylindrical office block built by BMW to celebrate the 1972 Olympics, it is playing a vital role in the effort to lessen the impact of the company's cars on the environment by making them easier to take apart and recycle at the end of their useful life.

Along with the 1-series and Rolls-Royce Phantoms, dozens more MINIs, X3 and X5 sport utilities, Z4 sports cars, 6-series coupes and convertibles, 5-series and 7-series models have also been subjected to a systematic, almost clinical process of disassembly that ensures materials for use the second time around are obtained with maximum ease and efficiency, and at the minimum cost.

Pioneered by BMW and likely to prove a crucial advantage as EU end-of-life legislation makes a greater impact on the production line, the disassembly process starts with a dramatic salvo of shots as all pyrotechnic components – items like the airbags and safety belt pre-tensioners – are fired off by remote control in an area especially enclosed to contain gases.

Then an array of other unique equipment is put to work to drain every drop of fuel, oil and water, deal with glass and strip out all useful parts for sale or reconditioning before the remaining shell is squeezed almost flat by a giant hydraulic crusher.

Final ignominy for what little remains of the car is for it to be dropped onto the back of a truck for the journey to a James Bond-like hammer mill, where the metal is sorted and unceremoniously shredded into palm-sized pieces for recycling as raw material.

Thanks to years of experience, RDC is a stand-alone BMW Group research and development operation as well as being a certified waste treatment facility.

But though the anti-production line is a smooth-running affair, car aficionados can find it disturbing to witness the destruction of machinery that appears fit for the showroom.

But there's no alternative. Recycling expert Guido Konn said: 'While it is possible to market some of the models that have been used for testing, most of the cars we receive here for disassembly are prototypes.

'As such, they will have been fitted with all manner of experimental equipment, a lot of it several years away from reaching the showrooms.
'This makes them highly sensitive vehicles from a commercial point of view – we certainly would not want our competitors to be able to see them.

'And while the cars might look shiny and new, they are most likely to have covered 100,000 miles or more to test out different suspension system variations.

'In circumstances like this, the cars are in non-standard trim, so we couldn't sell them anyway.'

As concern increases across the industry over the financial implications of end-of-life vehicle recycling – the EU has mandated that every vehicle scrapped after 2006 must be taken back at no charge from the last owner – BMW seems singularly well placed to bear the burdens associated with the legislation.

Since 2000, when Brussels issued the directive, the company has been quietly salting away considerable funds for the purpose – a prudent move, considering latest estimates suggest that more than 3.9 million BMWs will be on European roads by the start of 2007. And that total doesn't include all the group's models in use in the EU's 10 new member states.

Konn said: 'Being the first in the world to introduce structures for take-back and recycling in the early 1990s has certainly paid dividends.

'We have around 100 official dismantling facilities in Germany alone and a good network across other countries. This is not the case with many other manufacturers, and only Mercedes-Benz can claim to have an operation that is something close to what we do here.

'We have put a lot of effort into incorporating environmental considerations into new car design. In effect, the work carried out at this centre sets a global standard in this respect.

'It may not provide us with a direct gain in marketing a new car, but it does give us a lot of knowledge that will be of benefit in future, when the product eventually comes back to us.

'We evaluate the recyclability of new material combinations or components for new models in advance of the vehicle development process, and as well as passing on the information we obtain, we can identify at an early stage any special tools that may have to be developed to ease the recycling process.'

Bits and pieces add up to valuable reclaim

Among the string of successes claimed by RDC are the headlights that are used on the current 3-series range: despite comprising numerous individual components and materials, they take little time to dismantle.

Recycling expert Guido Konn claims the bumpers on the new 7-series range have also been constructed with a view to being particularly easy to handle at end of life.

As well as working on next-generation cars, researchers at RDC are also tasked with looking even further into the future and laboratory staff are well advanced with investigating how best to approach the dismantling and recycling of the hydrogen vehicles BMW has promised it will be producing between 10 and 15 years from now.

In the meantime, other problems remain to be solved. Konn said: 'The end-of-life directive sets high targets for material recycling. We support this, of course, but our plans to continually reduce the weight of our cars in order to increase their efficiency, lower their fuel consumption and reduce exhaust emissions do bring us into conflict with the requirement to reuse and recycle 95% of vehicles from 2015. It is a considerable challenge, but we will find solutions.'

The centre, a modest-sized operation on the edge of an industrial estate, deals with about 2,000 vehicles each year to provide a steady supply of components that can be used again.

Konn added: 'The term 'high-end recycling' is particularly appropriate in the case of engines found under the bonnets of current models.

'These are dismantled and many of the parts end up in the exchange unit programme run from our Landshut plant, where 15,000 engines are reconditioned each year.

'We also sell on all the wheels, tyres, hatchback doors, sunroof assemblies, mirrors and lamp assemblies that we reclaim. Catalytic converters represent the most profitable end of the business because all the precious metal they contain can be used again.'

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