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Scrapheap challenge: keeping track of the missing Irish cars

Tens of thousands of obsolete vehicles go unaccounted for each year, lost in a network of unauthorised scrapyards. It’s bad for the environment and bad for unsuspecting car owners

The authorised treatment facility is a place where cars come to die, and as such it isn’t the prettiest place. Vehicles at various stages of recycling dot the yard: some recent arrivals are mainly intact; others are at the end of the process and are literally shells of their former selves. But while this car graveyard may not be aesthetically pleasing, at least it is green on the inside.

The owner of Greener Metal Recycling, John Dockrell, gives me a tour pointing out the impenetrable surfaces to stop seepage; the rainwater collection tanks that contain all of the water used on site; the checklists of all the pollutants, including fuel, oil and brake fluid, that have to be removed from each vehicle. Anything that can be reused on site is reused, while a pool containing microbes disposes of any waste fluids that cannot be recycled.

Dockrell describes the set-up costs as “astronomical” and there is a continual investment in keeping the facility at the highest standard. However, the company is struggling due to a shortage of vehicles coming through the facility. He says that last year about 6,000 cars should have come through the facility, based on the estimated number of end-of-life vehicles in the Fingal area. Only 906 came through. The problem, Dockrell says, are the unlicensed operators taking business from his company.

The manager of the company, Paul Devlin, says illegal operations are hurting authorised sites across the country. “Cars are going to scrapyards that are not authorised treatment facilities and they are not treating them as end-of-life vehicles – they’re just treating them as scrap metal. They’re taking them in, not depolluting them and ripping the engine out,” he says.

Greener Metal Recycling is battling on a number of fronts. The first problem is the high value of some of the elements contained in the vehicles. Illegal operators will go to some lengths to get their hands on cars and will pay owners to take vehicles off their hands, something authorised facilities cannot do. It has also lost business from its website,, to an unauthorised facility operating under another web address.

Another contributing factor is a lack of public awareness on the issue. People do not realise it is now their responsibility to dispose of the vehicle in an authorised treatment facility. That facility should issue a certificate of destruction, necessary for the Vehicle Registration Unit in Shannon to deregister the vehicle. Some owners have discovered to their detriment that it is a false economy placing their trust in illegal operators who are capitalising on this lack of knowledge.

Patrick Browne from Cavan went about getting two old cars scrapped. “I called a company which on the face of it seemed to be legitimate,” he says. “The agreement was that within a few days I would get a certificate of destruction sent out in the post. It never came, but what did come was a parking fine from Drogheda for €40.”

Thus began a red-tape nightmare. Browne first went to Louth County Council who told him the vehicle was still registered in his name. He then spoke to the Garda Síochána, which said not much could be done despite his fears that either car could be involved in a hit-and-run and that the vehicle would be traced back to him.

Browne eventually contacted the Department of Transport and was told to secure an affidavit from a solicitor, which he then had to send on to the authorities in Shannon before he could eventually be cleared of the parking fine. He later found out both cars were still on the road.

Similarly it took Nigerian Charles Omoregbee six months to deregister his car having unwittingly passed it on to an illegal operator. He first became aware there was a problem when he received two M50 tolls on the supposedly scrapped vehicle. Omoregbee says he sought the advice of his local council beforehand but that they didn’t know the correct procedure. It should be made more public so people know how to do the right thing,” he says.

There are huge environmental costs involved in not appropriately dealing with end-of-life vehicles. James Nix, co-ordinator of Plan Better, a joint initiative of An Taisce, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the Irish Environment, and Feasta, says the consequences for human health and the environment are severe. “Used engine oil is highly contaminated,” he says. “If it leaks into soil . . . it will find its way to ground-water. Toxic chemicals – arsenic, lead, cadmium, zinc, barium and chromium – all leach out.”

Much like illegal quarries and the stockpiling of waste tyres, says Nix, “not enough is being done by the local authorities to combat illegal sites. Unlawful dismantling yards are supposed to be put out of business by the enforcement of planning legislation. But sadly, enforcement is largely dysfunctional in many counties,” he says, adding that if complaints made to environmental organisations are representative, effective enforcement is lacking right across the country.

Regulations surrounding end-of-life vehicles came into Irish law in June 2006 following a European directive in 2000. This required member states to increase the proper reuse and recovery of all end-of-life vehicles to 85 per cent by the year 2006 (this rises to 95 per cent in 2015).

However, it would appear that these targets are not being reached. In 2008, the last year for which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could provide statistics, only 11.5 per cent of the estimated 127,612 cars that came off the road could be accounted for through certificates of destruction. By this measure, nearly 113,000 cars were unaccounted for in 2008.

However a spokeswoman for the environmental agency disputes this, and points to an 82 per cent recovery rate in the EPA’s report on 2008. “There are strict rules as to when a certificate of destruction can be issued, and therefore certificates are not issued every time a vehicle is brought to an authorised treatment facility. Therefore the number of certificates issued in Ireland (and in other member states) is lower than the number of end-of-life vehicles brought to authorised treatment facilities,” she says, adding that the agency also surveys shredders to reach that recovery rate.

But Paul Devlin of Greener Metal Recycling disputes the EPA’s figures: “The simple fact of the matter is you cannot know for certain that a car has gone through an authorised treatment facility unless a certificate has been issued. It’s the lynchpin of the whole system.”

While the EPA collates information regarding end-of-life vehicles for inclusion in its end of year report, the spokeswoman says city and county councils are “the frontline enforcement authorities” for these regulations.

The European Commission has received a complaint that Irish local authorities are not ensuring a level playing field between authorised and unauthorised facilities for end-of-life vehicles. “In particular, it was claimed that local authorities were not, in practice, taking any effective enforcement action against unauthorised facilities handling end-of-life vehicles,” the commission says.

Ireland has a previous 2005 European Court of Justice ruling that found it had “systematically failed to ensure respect for requirements of the Framework Waste Directive obliging waste facilities to operate under a waste permit”.

The spokeswoman says the commission is not satisfied that the judgment of the European Court of Justice has yet been fully implemented by the Irish authorities, adding that the commission has “not yet” asked for any penalty. But, she says, if necessary actions are not taken, the commission may take Ireland back to court and request financial penalties.

Cork County Council has been proactive in its handling of scrapyards. When legislation surrounding end-of-life vehicles came into law in 2006 the local authority initiated a project to counter unauthorised end-of-life vehicle sites in the area.

Through aerial surveillance the council identified 167 unauthorised sites operating in the local authority area, each of which received correspondence from Cork County Council advising them they needed to regularise their activities or cease operations. Follow-up inspections resulted in the closure of 159 of those sites; the council aims for the remaining eight sites to be regulated by the end of this year, allowing responsible operators to properly carry out their duties.

However, according to John Dockrell, until all local authorities step up their efforts to deal with illegal operators, authorised treatment facilities will continue to suffer. “We are being punished for doing things right,” he says. All we want is a level playing field, but until the authorities take this nettle and grasp it properly it’s not going to get sorted out.”