China – Dead Cars and What To Do With Them

China has a problem, and it’s a biggy; Dead cars and what to do with them. End of Life Vehicles, or ELVs is what the recycling industry calls them. The root of all those ELVs is pollution, and it is choking the country. And it’s growing faster than they can fix it. The root of the problem isn’t so much the vehicles themselves; it’s the burgeoning Chinese middle class driving radically increased vehicular use that’s to blame. According to the China Business Review, “from 1995 to 2005, the population of China’s middle class —defined here as households with annual incomes ranging from $6,000 to $25,000— grew from close to zero in 1995 to an estimated 87 million in 2005.” That rate of growth hasn’t slowed down in the last decade; if anything, it’s increased – by next year, it’s expected that figure will have risen by an additional 60%.

As the purchasing power of this hugely expanded middle class has increased, so has their desire for cars, trucks, motorcycles, and scooters. While municipal governments have rolled out high efficiency mass transit, use of those systems has dropped radically, because the new middle class prefers to drive their own vehicles instead.

While the Chinese government tags fossil fuel use for power production as the primary cause of urban pollution, cars still account for upwards of 40% of what’s plaguing her cities; according to the USEIA, Chinese gasoline use doubled in the decade between 2003 and 2013, and continues to spiral upward. While lower polluting fuels are becoming more available in China, they’re not yet widely used, because vehicle owners simply prefer to buy the higher polluting, cheaper blend.

While high pollution levels used to be perceived as a Beijing problem, they’re far more widespread today. As radically increased vehicle use spreads to the adjoining countryside, so do the pollution problems. Even Hangzhou, long know for its pastoral beauty, is now suffering from months of high pollution count days. That’s had a cooling effect on tourism, something they can hardly afford in an already shaky economy.

China’s answer is, at least on paper, to strictly limit inefficient vehicles. This has generated a glut of discarded, inefficient vehicles. Acres and acres of domestic discarded cars, trucks, buses, bikes and scooters is a fairly new phenomenon in China, and they’re not quite sure what to do about it just yet.

Recycling certainly isn’t new to China. For decades, European and North American countries have sent recyclables to China for processing. According to the Bureau of International Recycling, China imported up to 15 million tonnes of plastic scrap annually, and for the most part, turned a profit from the endeavor. But all of that took place before China began to experience a need to process domestic recycling on the scale they now face.

The primary issue is twofold; one, the difficulty of collection of ELVs, and two, the level of ancillary pollution caused by improper dismantling and storage. China simply hasn’t had the need to set land aside for scrapyards, or to handle vehicular scrap on a massive scale. The speed at which the middle class has grown is mirrored by the pace at which this waste has appeared and required attention.

Numerous industry papers and briefs discuss China’s history of problems with imported recycling, when discussing the challenges of their domestic situation. Roughly 20% of what China took in from the world was not recyclable; in other words, it was plain old waste, and this ended up in Chinese landfills. Combined with less than strict or even well coordinated laws and practices governing such disposal, it’s a recipe for disaster. Overhaul and coordination on a national scale is needed – is, in fact, well past due – and as China’s leaders obfuscate, the ELVs pile up.

With the specter of millions of domestic vehicles piled on top of these existing issues, it’s easy to see why the problems far outweigh the answers.