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Time to license auto recyclers?

The best auto recyclers carefully remove any reusable parts, such as tires and wheels, for resale and drain any remaining fluids for safe disposal.

“A free-for-all.”

“An abomination.”

Strong words about an industry that’s supposed to perform a beneficial service.

And they come from people within it.

They are car recyclers.

It isn’t fresh news that there are problems and scams among those who dismantle and dispose of old or wrecked vehicles. What is astonishing is that solutions are as obvious as they are ignored.

There are good operators: Most belong to the Ontario Automotive Recyclers Association and its national counterpart. But they are a small minority. The term “abomination” came from association member David Gold, of Scarborough’s Standard Auto Wreckers. “Anyone can do anything, and everyone does do everything,” he says.

Gold estimates careful businesses handle just 10 per cent of all end-of-life vehicles, or ELVs. That leaves plenty who don’t do the job properly.

They buy cars, strip the most profitable bits, then send the rest for crushing without removing the battery, filters, mercury switch and the 40 or 50 litres of fluids each usually contains. The contaminants get into the environment, mainly into groundwater or, through sewers, into lakes and rivers. Mercury, which attacks the nervous system, can be released into the air if it’s mixed with scrap steel in a blast furnace. Refrigerants escape to attack the ozone.

The Ontario Automotive Recyclers Association has its own code. But it’s voluntary. The province inspects recyclers after complaints, but imposes no overall standards. While municipal approval is required to openly set up shop, there are no rules that each ELV and its contents must be accounted for.

Nothing prevents anyone from buying cars, dragging them to a warehouse and stripping them behind closed doors, before hauling the remnants to one of many crushers – who aren’t required to ask questions, and don’t.

“They’re not licensed … they don’t have our expenses or responsibilities,” says Jordan Waxman of Hollywood North Auto Parts. “If they’re not licensed, they shouldn’t be allowed to dismantle vehicles.”

“If you’ve got a tow truck and a cellphone and can pay cash for cars, no one is really stopping you from that,” says Steve Fletcher, the association’s executive director. He’s the one who described the situation as a free-for-all.

Licensing would go a long way to clean up the industry.

Most ELVs come from insurance auctions or car dealerships. These sources could be required to sell only to licensed recyclers who abide by strict standards.

It would also help to require cars to be officially deregistered before they’re scrapped. Europe and Japan do that. To give their systems teeth, they impose a disposal fee when a car is bought. It’s passed on to any buyer during the car’s life and is refunded to the final owner.

The European Union has directed each member country to achieve 90 per cent recycling or reuse of cars by 2012. We don’t need that kind of rule since, in terms of such numbers, cars are actually a recycling success here. Even illicit operators keep 75 to 80 per cent of a car’s components out of landfills.

They just do it in a way that harms the environment.

The big mystery is why government won’t crack down. Surely it isn’t cowering before a powerful lobby representing environmental pirates. Does it fear insurance auctioneers, worried that licensing might reduce the number of bidders and depress their profits?

“We’re looking to be regulated,” Gold says. “What’s holding government back?”

A very good question.